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Helping Special Education Students Grieve

The Challenges Special Students Face Make Loss More Difficult

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Sometimes problem behaviors stem from the fact that one of your students is dealing with grief. I remember working at a camp many years go with intellectually disabled young adults (out of school.) One of our boys had lost his father within the year, and was exhibiting symptoms of mental illness: spacing out, self injurious behavior, and strange ideation.

How can we help them deal with the pain they may be experiencing?

  • Recognize that something significant has happened. A lot of adults think they can protect children from grief by pretending it hasn't happened. That seems to go doubly for disabled children. Let's face it. Grandma dies. We are feeling sad. We will miss Grandma.

  • Avoid euphemisms. Don't tell them "Fido has gone to sleep." You may have a child who is terrified to go to sleep, for fear you'll bury them in the backyard. Be sure they know what death is. If Grandpa is dead, he is not coming back for your birthday. Use your own religious values to talk about what happened to Grandpa. If you believe in heaven, then you might see Grandpa again. If you don't, you may want to talk about remembering Grandpa in our hearts and sharing the memories.

  • Talk about feelings. Sad and bad are not synonyms. It's okay to feel sad. It's important to talk about how the sadness will go away eventually, and how they will have more good feelings than bad feelings. Admit that loss is hard, and that you may share the child's feelings.

  • Share your feelings. When my grandfather died, I was teaching 2nd grade in Minnesota. I talked about how I felt sad and that I would meet him. Many parents shared later that their children were impressed with my honestly and able to talk about death and tough feelings.

  • Be attentive to extreme behaviors. Monitor a child who seems sadder than usual, or is talking and interacting with peers less. Inform parents of your concerns.

Remember that grief is a process, and everyone goes through the steps of grief differently. Be sure you give the student's time to deal with their grief, and also offer some breaks for favorite or preferred activities, to lower anxiety.

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