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Understanding loss and grief

In the past, grief has often been described as a series of stages (denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance) through which a grieving person passes. This linear model assumes that everyone who is grieving experiences all five stages in the same order and that acceptance brings the grieving process to an end. Moreover, these stages are often considered to be universal, regardless of their historic, cultural, family, or personal contexts.

Most people, however, do not experience these stages in any identifiable sequence or do not experience them all. In particular, many grieving people, both adults and children, never feel that they have achieved “acceptance” of their loss, in the sense of getting over it and forgetting. They may, however, reach a point where they no longer feel that their grief is disabling for them and where they are able to approach their life more positively. In this way, they are able to accept their loss as part of who they are in their new life.

Research (for example, by Silverman, Nickman, and Worden) into the ways that children grieve shows that they continue to maintain links in their minds and hearts with important people and places in their lives. This is particularly true when a child experiences the death of someone who has been close to them, but it can also apply to children who are adopted or who have little contact with a parent from whom they have been separated. Most children continue to be affected by their loss and, at each milestone in their lives, they may grieve again as they understand their loss in a different way.

It is very important to recognise that every person’s response to grief is different, no matter what their culture, gender, or age. Although most children are able to adjust to major loss and accept it as part of their identity, some will feel that they have never truly healed. In Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies (pages 16-17), James William Worden identifies six factors that influence the way children adapt to a parent’s death. These can be described as:

  • the actual death of the parent and the rituals surrounding the death
  • the relationship of the child to the parent who has died, both before the death and after it
  • the way the surviving parent functions and their ability to continue parenting the child
  • family-related influences, such as the family’s size, its style of coping, the support it provides, and the changes and disruptions to family life
  • support from peers and others outside the family
  • characteristics of the child, including personality, age, and gender.

Similar factors affect the ways that children cope with other major losses, such as their parents’ divorce. However, it is important to realise that feelings of grief do not occur only with major losses. Many other incidents in the lives of children can cause them to grieve.

Common losses for children include:

  • the loss of a favourite toy or “cuddly”
  • the losses associated with moving from crèche or kindergarten to school and from one school to another, with the resulting loss of friends, familiar teachers, and routines
  • changing teachers and losing that familiar relationship
  • the death of a pet
  • the death of a grandparent or other family member
  • a cot death (SID), stillbirth, or miscarriage in the family
  • moving house and consequently losing familiar and loved places, neighbours, and routines
  • the loss of whanaungatanga through separation or divorce in the family or other family separations
  • the losses associated with being a refugee, especially from a culture that is very different from New Zealand’s
  • the losses associated with illness or disability in the family
  • losing or breaking something valuable, such as money, clothes, or toys
  • the losses associated with theft
  • losing or breaking friendships
  • the losses associated with unfulfilled expectations and dreams and resulting disappointment
  • the losses associated with failure, for example, in exams or in getting into a team
  • the arrival of a new baby and consequent loss of position and status in the family
  • the losses associated with a disaster, such as a school or house fire, an earthquake, or a flood
  • the losses associated with abuse - physical, emotional, or sexual
  • the losses associated with adoption, such as loss of links to whakapapa.

Teachers can play an important role in supporting and encouraging grieving students in their school. Schools often establish a policy and procedures for teachers to follow when they feel it is important to refer students for professional help, such as grief counselling. Teachers also need to be aware of similarities and differences in the experiences of cultural groups and in their responses to change, disappointment, loss, and grief. Changing social, political, and economic patterns have separated many groups from their historical support networks and traditions. Today, some children, including Māori, have had little exposure to the traditional grieving processes of their culture.

The role and well-being of rangatahi is important to the future of Māori society as well as to the wider community. Rangatahi who are secure in their cultural identity have a confident framework to help them make choices and decisions. Those who are not secure within their culture may struggle with their identity and may, as a result of this conflict, be at risk of health problems.
Druis Barrett, He Tātai i te Ara, page 13

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The role and well-being of rangatahi is important to the future of Māori society as well as to the wider community. Rangatahi who are secure in their cultural identity have a confident framework to help them make choices and decisions. Those who are not secure within their culture may struggle with their identity and may, as a result of this conflict, be at risk of health problems.
Druis Barrett, He Tātai i te Ara, page 13

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There are some situations when it is appropriate for teachers to share their experiences and to grieve with students. For example, collective grieving is an important feature of the grieving process for many Māori and other societies. The teacher and class may want to join in grieving with a student who has lost a member of their whànau. This could be because of whanaungatanga bonds, or it could be a deliberate decision to demonstrate respect for the grieving student and their family. The grieving process, or tangi, often continues over a long time to allow those grieving to come to terms with their loss and adjust to the changes. For many Māori and other New Zealand children, the tangi is a normal part of life. It provides an opportunity to strengthen whanaungatanga relationships. When a student and their whànau have attended a tangi, it is normal to welcome them back into the class or school. 

It is useful to draw on your own experiences of loss when dealing with grieving people because this helps you understand how they might be feeling, but don’t presume that their experience of grief is the same as yours. You need to constantly check with them that you are perceiving their feelings correctly and providing the support that they need rather than doing what you consider should be done. This is as important when dealing with children as it is with adults. 


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