Contributed by Elena Lister, MD, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and senior consulting analyst for grief at Columbia University Psychoanalytic Center. She treats adults and children facing all life issues, specializes in grief, and is a frequently sought-out expert on dealing with loss in schools across the country. Dr. Lister is the co-author of I Will Remember You: A Guidebook Through Grief for Teens. 
 
Michael Schwartzman, PhD, ABPP, a senior psychologist and board-certified psychoanalyst, has worked with children, adolescents, adults, and families for over forty years. In addition to his private practice, Dr. Schwartzman is the consulting psychologist at two independent schools for children. He also lectures regularly to parents and professional colleagues on child development, parenting, and school-related issues. He is the author of The Anxious Parent: Freeing Yourself from the Fears and Stresses of Parenting.

Their latest book, Giving Hope: Conversations with Children About Illness, Death, and Loss, is available now wherever books are sold.


Many families are now in the process of preparing for the return to school after summer vacation. In some school districts, classes have already begun. While it’s usually filled with excitement, the unknowns of a new school year can lead to worries. A family in your community will have likely suffered a painful loss since school last ended. If your family is among them, the joy that offsets summer ending can be comprised. This can be especially difficult for a young child.

If your child has experienced a loss, concerns may arise. The death of a parent can be significantly different from the death of a grandmother or a favorite uncle. However, your goal as a caregiver to a grieving child remains the same: to help them know that everyday life will continue, that school is a place of support, and that everyone in their world is working together to help them alongside their loss.

All this can be extremely difficult. Yet, in our clinical work with parents and children, we’ve found that children find the loss more bearable when they can return to daily routines. In consultation with your child’s school, we strongly recommend having a transparent and open plan. It should contain the steps needed to support the child’s return to school as soon as possible.

Here are some useful tips from our work with the children, parents, and schools who have navigated this difficult experience.

Before returning to school

Families we work with find it helps to let your child know that their teacher, the school counselor, and the school nurse know about their loss and are there to help them. Explain to your child that the staff will update you on how they are faring. This can offer your child a sense of safety with those helping.

Contact your child’s school

The key to establishing support for your child begins with contacting their school. Doing so as early as possible helps you and the school’s staff develop a plan for the child’s re-entry.

Some parents we’ve worked with have found that communicating with classmates’ parents is helpful. Your school may be able to disseminate this information for you, too. Making other parents aware within your child’s community allows them to answer their children’s questions and respond to your child empathetically.

Making other parents aware within your child’s community allows them to answer their children’s questions and respond to your child empathetically.

It also gives you the chance to frame how you wish the school community to describe your family’s situation and what information your child has surrounding the death. For example, your child may be privy to the details about a grandparent who had been ill. However, they might not know all the facts about a loved one who died in a fatal car accident.

When your child doesn’t return to school at the same time as classmates

If your child is not ready to return to school on the first day, it can be helpful for the teacher to make a gentle announcement to the class and explain their absence. Your child’s friends might be concerned about how your child is doing. This helps to prepare for your child’s future return and the appropriate responses of classmates.

Helping your child prepare to return to school for the first time

Many children don’t know what to say to their friends about the death of a loved one. They can feel self-conscious or that they’re now different from their friends. They may be uncomfortable drawing attention to themselves. Sometimes, children might not know how to talk about loss.

Sometimes, they might not know what to say. You can help your child think through how they can respond and practice it at home.

You can help your child think through how they can respond and practice it at home. An easy and simple response for a young child is, “I have a grandma, and she died.” Sometimes, a child wants to say more about how they understand the death. You can help them find simple words such as, “My uncle was in a car accident, and he died, but now he’s in heaven,” or, “My grandpa died, and I have him in my memory.”

When your child does return

When you and your child feel steadier and ready for the next steps, the time is right for a return to school. Some children do best when they know that they can transition slowly by starting with less than a full day. 

If this is the case, you can arrange with the school to pick up your child early, such as after lunchtime or during another natural break. We firmly believe that being in school for part of the day is preferable to your student not going at all.  

If you have shared information with the school, your child’s teacher will be prepared to help your returning student ease back in. If you have not yet contacted the school, now is a good time to discuss your child’s loss and what may be needed from the school to facilitate a successful re-entry. A well-informed school staff can be more sensitive to your child’s grief and emotional needs.

A full day of school with grief may be challenging

Children we work with sometimes find themselves needing alone time during the school day. They may ask to go to the school nurse when they are upset, want quietness, or feel tired. We recognize this as a normal response.

Students make a significant effort to participate and focus on schoolwork. Keeping their emotions at bay often adds to this. Indeed, depending on how emotionally preoccupied they are during this time, some children may suffer difficulty participating.

While we find that most children look at school as a welcome respite since it means being with friends, we also see that some children respond differently and what is preferable for one child is not necessarily right for another. Keep in touch with the school nurse and their teacher so that you are aware of your child’s reactions and needs.

Understand that grief may temporarily impede the learning process

Parents often express their worries to us regarding their child’s focus during school. Grieving takes up a lot of mental space and energy, even in a child who may not show outward signs of distress. It helps to adjust expectations, connect with teachers, and get extra academic support for your child, if possible.  While the goal is to re-engage in life fully, a gentler touch may be needed for a while, especially regarding academic focus and achievement.

In conclusion, these guidelines have been developed with the help of parents and their children. They have weathered a significant loss and, over time, live life fully.

The time frame for returning to regular routines varies with each child, their personal experience with loss, their relationship with the deceased, and the support they have received. 

The time frame for returning to regular routines varies with each child, their personal experience with loss, their relationship with the deceased, and the support they have received. 

Generally, the sooner a child returns to their regular school routine, the sooner grief integrates alongside a greater engagement in life. But paradoxically, the sooner that grief is experienced amidst daily routines, the more equipped the child is to engage with friends and schoolwork.

We encourage parents to have conversations with their children and the school personnel. This allows you to gauge the next steps for supporting your student. These are not definitive rules, only tips and guidelines to help parents find the best way to help their child on their path forward through grief.


Dr. Lister and Dr. Schwartzman’s new book, Giving Hope: Conversations with Children About Illness, Death, and Loss is available now wherever books are sold.

You may also connect with Dr. Lister on Twitter or her website. For Dr. Schwartzman please join him on Twitter or his website.

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