Children must learn to grieve, too

When a parent dies, school can become a support system, says
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Last July, Kelly Major's dad was killed in a car accident. She was nine. In the space of a few hours, home became a different place. Her world collapsed.

Usually, Kelly's father would take her to school. But on her first day back, a neighbour had to. "I was worried that everyone would ask questions," says Kelly. "I thought I'd start crying."

Instead, her teacher took her to another room and asked how she felt. After asking Kelly's permission, they went in together and told the class. Immediately, classmates put their arms round her. Later, she received a card - lots of felt-tipped flowers and a message: "We're sorry your dad died."

"It was good everyone knowing. I didn't have to pretend," says Kelly. "Lots of people asked me to play with them but I wanted to be on my own to think about my dad."

Kelly's school, Kingsholm Primary in Gloucester, dealt with her bereavement head on. They made her comfortable, gave her space to talk, and shared her sadness - all as part of a bereavement strategy.

The support scheme, devised by Tim Gisborne, a teacher at Kingsholm, is the only one of its kind in the country, but it is the key, he claims, to the emotional health of any school.

"Death touches school all the time," says Mr Gisborne, "and yet there is no formal training on how to handle it. Most teachers say nothing, assuming they can't do any harm that way. But imagine the message that sends. The child might have questions but if no one gives them the chance to talk, that all gets squashed down."

School is a safe and reassuring place. With its routines and familiar faces, it makes a good environment for grief.

"There are friends to play with, teachers to talk to. There's no need to make death taboo," he says. "The mechanics for support are already in place."

Mr Gisborne noticed the need for a plan of action back in 1987. "I was new to teaching and a boy was coming into my class whose father had committed suicide. I didn't have a clue what to do."

After specialist training, he started offering in-service training across the county. School needs vary. "More often it's dealing with a bereaved pupil," says Mr Gisborne. "If Mum keeps crying about Dad's death, then it's likely the child will keep his own feelings inside, in case he upsets her. That's where school comes in."

The programme's cornerstone is communication. "I once asked a five-year- old whose dad had died of motor neurone disease what he thought had happened. He said someone had stabbed his dad in the throat. No one had explained that his dad's tracheotomy helped him to breathe." It is vital that the child is kept involved. "Telling the class when the child is out of the room is isolating," explains Mr Gisborne. "Being set apart is the last thing they need." Asking the child's permission to tell the class, then teacher and child informing the class together, serves an emotional purpose. "The child feels in control. It's a case of respecting him as an individual."

Being upfront about sad news is important. "Often children aren't told straight about what's happened. They're given euphemism and soft soap because adults think they need protecting. But to say Kelly's lost her dad, or that he's gone away, is confusing. It doesn't help children to understand that death is permanent."

The school's head, John Burdess, says: "These days, death is taboo - a messy business that no one likes to talk about. Yet the one thing we can be sure of is that we'll face death. Children need to be prepared for that - taught how to deal with it when it comes."

When a Kingsholm teacher died of cancer two years ago, Mr Burdess encouraged the school to grieve together.

"The teacher was a lovely lady and enjoyed a warm relationship with many of the children. When she died we felt it terribly and that needed honouring. The children wrote poems, drew pictures and put them together on a memory board.

"You can let death happen quietly," says Mr Burdess, "and leave children to work it out for themselves, or you can get involved and show children how to cope. To me the latter makes sense - it's education that stays for ever."