How can we help young people deal better with the losses they experience? Secondary drama teacher and SEAL coordinator Julie Leoni reflects on her own experiences

In the last week of the spring term, I led a SEAL training session on loss and mourning. It was also the end of my last full term before going off on maternity leave. Together with other things that were happening, this led me to thinking about loss and grief.

My experience of schools suggests that we don’t ‘do’ death and bereavement very well. We can all talk about most aspects of sex without too much of a tremor. But in our culture of youthfulness, death is the the big taboo. Some staff I talk to argue that death is something most pupils don’t experience. I’m not so sure.

Frequent experience
I have just said goodbye to a Year 7 group who I have been seeing once a week for the last term. During my short time with this group, Jamie’s dad died of an asthma attack; John’s two-year-old brother swallowed washing up liquid and ended up in intensive care for a week; Liz was frightened that her grandma would die after falling and hurting herself; Luke’s grandma did die; Ria’s parents announced they were splitting up and she wasn’t sure where she would have to live; Ruth’s dog died and Paul saw a hit and run accident late one night. He described the blood, the damaged head and the crowds before the ambulance arrived. All that since Christmas, in one class.

Does the death of a dog, divorce and fear of death ‘count’ as a loss? I think it does. A dog who has been with you throughout your 11 years of life is a big loss. The threat of a loss incurs the same emotional response as an actual loss; so a gran in hospital with a broken hip is likely to give rise to fear, sadness, anxiety and worry. Violent or unnatural death has a huge impact even where there is no relationship with the victim: the sheer bloodiness of the hit and run was what had upset Paul.

We survive loss better if we have other close attachment relationships. Jamie is appearing to do well at the moment, but his mum is not around, and he is living with his sister, so I wonder about the long-term effect of his dad’s death.

My research into the emotional interactions that lead to exclusion showed that every single child who was excluded had experienced a loss or threat of loss at the moment of exclusion. These included the loss of:

  • physical safety in a fight
  • identity and belonging through name calling
  • self-esteem through being met with public sarcasm by a teacher.

What was in danger of being lost was something important for each student’s wellbeing. To have those things threatened, even for a moment, can give rise to emotions of fear, loss, anger, sadness.

Some 67% of the young people I interviewed after an exclusion had also experienced a death, divorce or other significant loss. They could connect their feelings at the time of the exclusion incident back to that loss. The more losses that an individual had experienced, the more likely they were to behave in a way which led to exclusion. Their hurt was transformed into anger.

The reasons why
We need to start asking why some young people are angry. We also need to help them work with the losses they experience. Giving the SEAL training to teaching assistants I worked with Jon, the social worker from our local children’s hospice. We looked at:

  • models of bereavement
  • our own experience of loss
  • how we lived through them.

Jon reinforced for us the importance of including children, and explaining things to them, of using the words ‘dead’, ‘death’ and ‘die’, rather than confusing euphemisms. We then watched a cartoon video about children’s responses to death, and how adults could support them.

By the end of the video, most of us, including Jon, were wiping our eyes. And that’s the issue isn’t it? It hurts to think about loss and grief, to listen to somebody else’s pain, to bear somebody’s grief, and to know that there is nothing we can do to make it better. It reminds us of our own losses. We feel some of those feelings again and might even begin to ‘lose control’ and show how we feel. We are scared that by talking we might make things worse, but as Jon said, how can it be any worse?

I remarked that ‘even’ Jon was visibly upset by the video and his reply was ‘and so I bloody should be’. Death, divorce, serious illness and disability are sad, scary and confusing. They make us feel angry, hopeless, lost, numb, coping one minute and collapsing the next. These life events should be included in our work in schools in more than just our PSHE or RE schemes of work.

So let’s make time to listen to people living with a loss. Let’s be the kind of teachers who can answer questions about our own experiences, and be moved by them. Let’s allow ourselves to go beyond our role and into our hearts, so that we are offering experience as well as knowledge, the personal as well as the curricular.