Jim Benton, a teacher at Grassland Middle School in Franklin, Tennessee, died unexpectedly of an undiagnosed medical condition while on a field trip with some of his students. Here are a couple of things to consider in helping your kid understand and deal with death when it comes to a teacher they and their friends knew in a setting like school.
Talk about it. Bring up Mr. Benton’s death. Ask how your kid is feeling. Ask about what they remember about Mr. Benton. Talk about your own feelings and how you felt when someone you knew in your past died (or how you feel about Mr. Benton’s death). Don’t avoid the topic and don’t be hesitant to talk about Mr. Benton.
Educate them about grief. Let your kid know what is normal when it comes to grief and sadness. While there aren’t universal reactions to the death of someone close, there are some common reactions kids can have: shock and disbelief, sadness, anger, anxiety, confusion and, sometimes, guilt. Many people cycle through these feelings. Sometimes it can seem like they are resolved and then back they come. Make sure your kid knows about these reactions. Validate whatever feelings they experience. Boys especially may need permission to express their sadness by crying. It is also important to let them know that everyone grieves in their own way. They don’t have to do it like everyone else. The important thing is for them to let you know how they are feeling.
Honoring Mr. Benton’s life. Take a moment to honor Mr. Benton’s life. If your child had a limited connection to him, then a prayer or a moment of wishing his family and friends well in this difficult time can be enough. If your child knew him well then a more formal gesture might be in order: a condolence card, donating to an appropriate charity. Finally, attending his funeral services may also be appropriate.
Expect to remember. When you lose someone close their absence leaves a hole in your life. Mr. Benton’s classroom is filled with reminders of him. He won’t be where he is supposed to be when they return to school. He won’t be speaking to them in the hallway. Someone else will show up where he is supposed to be. Help your kid realize they can look around where he used to be and use that to remember him. It doesn’t only have to be a reminder that he is gone. For kids who have suffered a significant loss in their past, Mr. Benton’s death may bring those feelings up again. If there is a loss like that in your kid’s life, mention that Mr. Benton’s death made you think of the loss of that person too. It can give you and your child the chance to remember what you loved about other loved ones who have died.
Comforting friends. Some of your kid’s friends may have known Mr. Benton better than others. Help your kid know how to support an upset friend. Make sure they tell you if it seems like their friend is especially upset. Wondering what they should do, if they are doing enough and if something is wrong can be stressful on your kid. Your kid will need to know that just being with someone while they are sad can be enough.
Emotional ripples. Make sure your kid knows that it’s ok if they are not deeply affected by Mr. Benton’s death. It is sad when a nice person with a nice family dies. But your kid may worry they aren’t sad enough even though they weren’t particularly close to Mr. Benton. When it comes to grief, you feel what you feel. But it is important to respect other’s grief by being more mellow.
What’s next? Help your kid think through what’s next; for Mr. Benton, for Mr. Benton’s family and friends, for Mr. Benton’s students. Sometimes a death is so upsetting that kids will lose sight of the fact that life continues for the living. Talking to them about what is next will help them see there is something past this loss and that there is something beyond death (whether it is Mr. Benton’s impact on the world and the people whose lives he touched or the traditions of your faith beliefs about what follows for him after death). This is one of the crucial times when faith traditions provide comfort. You are setting the stage for your kid to handle other losses they will face in their lives. Give them a model for imagining what follows death.
What if? When someone they know dies, kids can also begin to wonder what would happen if you died. If that comes up, take it seriously. Make sure they know who would care for them if something happened to you.
Stay close. The death of someone you know leads to a realization of how important our loved ones are to us. Hug your kid. Keep close to them for a couple of days. Check in with them more often than you might otherwise until at least 2 weeks after Mr. Benton’s funeral.
When to worry. Not everyone needs “professional” help when they have suffered a loss. However, there are a couple of things to look for in your kid that suggest they are taking the loss very hard. These include:[list style=”circle”]
- Depression that hangs around so long they lose interest in regular things, stuff they used to enjoy, friends, things that were previously important to them
- Sleep problems, loss of appetite, difficulty being alone (or wanting to be alone all the time)
- Feeling angry all the time
- Thinking about death or mentioning suicide
- Feeling stuck, like nothing matters anymore or they can’t seem to get themselves going.
- Thinking they would really like to have someone to talk to about what they are going through.
If any of these things are hanging around longer than 2 weeks or so, consult with your medical doctor or a mental health professional. If your kid mentions suicide or talks about being dead, keep them close and call one of these professionals immediately.
This post was published as a special column in the Brentwood Home Page.