Dealing with bereavement

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How our school for children with BESD helped pupils come to terms with the death of one of our teachers

Following the death of maths and physical education teacher Peter Atkinson, we at CYCES, an independent special school for pupils with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD), had to develop a rounded, long term approach to dealing with bereavement. Pete’s death shook the school dramatically. While he had been ill for some time, his passing was unexpected. The loss of someone close, be it a family member, friend or in this case, a teacher, affects us all differently, but for those with complex behavioural and emotional needs, bereavement can have a severe impact.

Grief and loss often manifest themselves in anger. In addition, if someone has a personal experience of loss or separation in their past, there is a danger that the emotions felt at that time can be triggered and come flooding back. A number of our pupils have lost loved ones in their private lives, so we expected the students to have intense reactions to the news. On top of this, Pete’s passing wasn’t the first death at the school in recent times. Sadly, a teaching assistant, Sam, was killed in a tragic accident in 2007, so we were concerned that the children would be particularly vulnerable.

 The school’s eco project was a wholly appropriate way to honour Peter Atkinson.An individual approach

For a number of years, I worked as a bereavement advisor in Manchester and supported schools at these difficult times. Through this experience, I learnt about the importance of considering the individual needs of each person and including students and staff, both in the immediate aftermath and the longer term.

With this in mind, staff at the school sat down to discuss what was best for the students and we realised that we needed to adopt a careful, considered approach to dealing with Pete’s death. We agreed that being open with pupils and ensuring they were fully involved was crucial. Being explicit about what has happened and sharing information is really important at times such as this. If students feel left in the dark, it can lead to anger and frustration. With this approach agreed, we called an assembly to tell the students.

An important step in any bereavement scenario is for people to share their emotions as soon after the event as possible. However, you must bear in mind that talking isn’t necessarily right for everyone. When we told the pupils, we stressed that there is no right way to feel or behave and suggested various ways they could let out their feelings.

In the days after Pete’s death, we set up small discussion groups where we encouraged the students to express what they liked about Pete. We tried to keep these sessions as positive as possible, as celebrations of his life. For those who were less keen to talk, we gave them access to activity books specially designed for bereavement scenarios. Alongside this, we also set up some more creative ways for students to express their feelings. One of these was a display wall where students could post writings or drawings about Pete. These pieces were later placed into a memory book, a copy of which we sent to Pete’s wife.

Remembering the positives

While students expressed their grief in different ways, one overall memory of Pete stood out. Pete had an eager and energetic approach to life, and he particularly loved gardening, nature and the environment. So, when thinking of a longer-term way to remember his contribution to the school, creating an eco project was a natural choice.

We began the eco project a few months after Pete’s death and one of the first steps was to install paper and cardboard recycling bins on site. To ensure student involvement, we also appointed a student eco warden whose role is to make sure the school behaves positively regarding energy usage on a daily basis. We also developed Sam’s existing memorial garden to include three ornamental cherry trees which will flower around Pete’s birthday.

For the students who knew Pete well, the project has really helped as it has given them a way to channel their emotions, and provided them with activities they can enjoy and complete in his memory. On top of this, the eco project ensures the school has a positive impact on something Pete cared so intensely about.

A strategy for all

As well as ensuring your approach caters for those who were close to the person who has died, it is essential that you consider those who didn’t know them well, particularly in a specialist institution where a sense of normality and a consistent level of support are important. The eco project has been great for this too. For those who didn’t know Pete well, the initiative is simply a fantastic project for improving the school and its environmental practices.

Looking to the future

While dealing with the immediate effects of a death is important, the longer term and psychological impacts should not be forgotten. Most people go through their early years without giving a thought to mortality. However, when someone close to you passes away, it’s only natural that you question the transient nature of human life. In my previous role, I saw this with one child who began to question their security following the passing of a school teacher and became afraid to leave his family home. While a death can trigger upset, sadness and anger in the days immediately after, it can also cause more deep routed fears and reactions later down the line.

It is important, therefore, that the school has a long term strategy and conducts regular checks with pupils to see how they are feeling. Day to day, we make it clear to pupils that if they want to talk, they just need to say so, and sometimes we even suspend lessons to give students the opportunity to share how they are feeling. Recently, we organised a whole school sponsored walk across local moors with Pete’s friends and family. This gave us the chance to speak with pupils on neutral ground and some students felt more comfortable to talk frankly about their feelings away from the school.

For the school, the eco project has been a successful way of helping pupils through a difficult time. The initiative has enabled us to celebrate Pete’s life and, at the same time, help students to express their emotions in ways that suit them. Despite the difficult circumstances, staff have been immensely proud of how students have responded and embraced the project so positively. All scenarios will be different, and responses will vary from person to person, but, as our case shows, creating a positive and long term outlet for emotions will support students and staff at a time of difficultly and sadness.

Further information

Steve Grimley is Principal of CYCES, an independent special school for pupils with BESD, run by the Together Trust:
www.togethertrust.org.uk

This article was first published in issue 48 (September/October 2010) of SEN Magazine.

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