Whether kids should tell their school class about the death of someone close to them is a necessary question that gets little attention. As the parent/guardian, you play an important role in your child’s decision-making process so let’s discuss how you can help your child decide what’s right for them and how to navigate the situation.
First, it’s essential to tell your child that it is perfectly okay if they don’t want to share the death with their class. Listen to their reasons and let them know that you respect their choice and also they can change their mind at any point in the future.
If your child says they are interested in telling their class, acknowledge their bravery in wanting to share their grief. This validation empowers the child, teaches them that it is okay to talk about their person who died, and will even give their classmates permission to talk about their own stories of grief through modeling.
What should your child say in class?
Prepping your child about what to share is helpful in creating a safe place, and there are several questions to consider together:
- Does your child want you (the parent/guardian) to be present during this time of sharing with the class?
- Other than the child’s teacher, is there anyone your child would like to be there, such as the school counselor?
- What does your child want to say about the person who died? This might include the person’s name, what role they had in the child’s life, what their hobbies/interests were, etc. Creating a script ahead of the time will likely be reassuring, and the degree of details to be shared should be based on the child’s age and developmental stage.
- Does your child want to bring a photo of the person who died or a memento to share with the class?
- Does your child want to meet with you, the teacher, and/or counselor to go over the plan before meeting the whole class? This is recommended to create further support.
Dealing with follow-up questions from students
It’s impossible to predict how the child’s classmates will react to the news or what questions they may ask. This is why it is important to brainstorm possible scenarios; maybe start by asking your child, “How do you think your friends will react”? “What types of questions do you think your friends will have?” It’s quite possible a student will ask how the death happened, and want to drill down into more details out of sheer curiosity.
Then talk out how your child might handle the various questions. They can answer with as much or little detail as they want, and always have the choice to say, “I don’t want to take any questions right now” or “thank you for your question but I would prefer not to answer that right now.” Having this language will hopefully ease anxiety. Plus, you can reassure your child that you will be right there to support them if they want.
As an elementary school counselor, I am most grateful for having had the privilege of bearing witness to children speaking to their class about their grief. I have also been touched by the depth of compassion that classmates extend to their friends. Being able to speak openly about our challenges, while receiving empathy, helps build a kinder society for all of us.
Kim White, MSW, LSW, CT, is a social worker and grief specialist with certification in thanatology (the study of grief and bereavement) through ADEC (Association for Death Education and Counseling). She is an elementary school counselor in NJ who also works with the Veterinary Hope Foundation as a veterinary social worker facilitating support groups. This past summer was her 14th year with Experience Camps as a Grief Specialist.