As cases of COVID increase, so does the likelihood that educators and their students will experience some form of loss. We spoke with clinical psychologist Dr. Richard Shadick, who is Teach For America’s national mental health consultant, about grief and loss and how school leaders and teachers can address it in and out of the classroom.
When we hear words like “grief” and “loss,” we tend to think about death and dying when actually these two terms encompass a lot more. What are some losses that educators and students could be experiencing during COVID-19?
Loss can arise in many different ways in educators’ and students’ lives, especially during COVID. For students, loss may occur on a near-daily basis. It may be a loss of connection with peers, access to ample food, hands-on learning, or structure in their day. For educators, loss may mean the absence of meaningful collegial support, daily structure, career attainment, or the rich interactions and satisfaction that comes with face-to-face teaching. On a broader scale, loss for students and educators may also mean the death of a loved one, loss of meaningful life events such as attending graduations, weddings, births, parties, or other situations that add substance and significance to our lives.
What are the common symptoms for those experiencing grief?
Grief is an intense emotional and physiological reaction to the loss of someone or something. We all experience loss in our lives; perhaps a friend moves away, or a romantic relationship ends. Often we grieve that loss and experience emotions such as sadness, irritability, or anger. We may also experience physical symptoms such as insomnia, loss of appetite, headaches, or stomach aches. In more severe cases, grief can lead to depression or other mental health problems and a prolonged inability to function. It’s important to recognize that grief is not a linear process or a box one can check. Ultimately the experience of grief, however long and intense the experience is, or when it may show up throughout our lives, is unique to each person.
What thoughts should educators keep top of mind when communicating with a student experiencing loss or grief?
Educators should remember that loss and grief are common life experiences. They are opportunities to learn and grow, and teachers can see them as openings to develop social-emotional learning. Teachers should also keep in mind that most students do not experience debilitating symptoms due to loss. Resilient responses are the most likely outcome. Nonetheless, educators should teach students about expectable versus debilitating grief so they can be aware of problems if they surface.
Finally, educators should make space for students to share their concerns. Whenever possible, teachers should find a quiet, private moment for students to talk to them about their feelings and listen in an open and non-judgmental manner. Spending a little time with a student going through a rough patch can lead not only to the student feeling heard and understood but may also help them to be more attentive and open to learning.