When a Classmate Dies

2013-08-14 04.48.23Many years ago, I was a consultant at a school where a kindergarten student had died. The parents of the other classmates wanted help as they helped their own children process the tragedy. I met with the parents to help them understand what to expect from their children, and I also consulted with the teacher through the semester.

We developed a culture in the classroom of openness. The student’s desk was left as it was when the student was alive. The children could bring items to leave on the desk to honor their classmate, and they were encouraged to tell stories about their friend who had died any time they wished. The teacher reported the process went well.

The next year, I again was again asked to consult with a school that had a second grader die. I recommended the same plan.  However, the teacher’s report was very different. She said the second-grade classmates avoided talking about their friend who had died. The following year, when this group entered the third grade, the school reported that several of the students began to share their sadness about their classmate. A few were so sad and distraught they did not want to go to class.

What can we make of this difference from kindergarten to second grade? I believe younger children have not yet learned to “shut down” some of their feelings.

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Dr. Patrick O’Malley is a psychotherapist in Fort Worth, Texas, specializing in grief counseling. For 35 years, he has counseled individuals, couples and families in his private practice. Dr. O'Malley has recently published a book, "Getting Grief Right" about grief recovery.

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