Back to School and Grief Considerations for School Age-Children

Robin Stimson, LMSW

Backpacks. Lunchboxes. Sharpened no. 2 pencils. These, and other items, are familiar to many parents and guardians that have prepped their kids for ‘Back to School.’ Unfortunately, COVID-19 restrictions and the emergence of the Delta variant have made an already stressful month feel more challenging and uncertain. However, for young people that have lost a loved due to a substance impaired driving crash, processing grief this time of year is another added stress. Childhood trauma is (unfortunately) common and the impact of child traumatic stress can last well beyond youth. Research has shown that child trauma survivors may experience learning problems, including lower grades and more suspensions and expulsions; increase involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and long-term health problems. If you are a caretaker of kids that are suffering from traumatic loss and headed back to the classroom, there are considerations to be mindful of that might aid in healing.

According to the University of Pennsylvania, teens release melatonin later in the evening than adults or young children do, which is why many want to stay up later and sleep in. This fact can make sticking to a schedule a difficulty. In addition, the light from cell phones, video games, TV, etc. late at night, can stop the production of melatonin and lead to total sleep deprivation. It’s a fact that lack of sleep will negatively impact a child’s ability to learn and will also increase the risk of psychological distress. For that reason, creating a sense of structure and routine can add a source of comfort and predictability for kids, which is important when the high-and-lows of their feelings may seem unmanageable.

MADD knows there is no one-way to grieve or express grief. A “right-way” or template for how to get through this, does not exist. Therefore, if you are supporting a young person that’s grieving, it will be essential to build a helpful team around both of you. In other words: call in reinforcements! Don’t be afraid to notify counselors, teachers, neighbors, health providers, family and friends, and other teammates that can help carry the emotional load and gain perspectives on struggles. Remember, you are likely grieving a loss too and you can’t be one thing to all of the people in your life. Another trusted ally can provide another set of eyes and offer an extra set of ears.

But there is hope. Children can and do recover from traumatic events. Grief professionals, families and others in the community can play a vital role in recovery. A critical piece of healing would be to have a supportive and holistic system and resources. Keep in mind that as the caretaker, pay attention to when and if you are feeling overwhelmed, it’s okay to seek help and guidance. For more resources and tips to aid child grievers, please reach out to MADD Mid-Atlantic Victim Services for more information and support.