The many small acts . . . . 

Ian Gilbert reflects on the nature of loss, and the contradictory ways in which it might be confronted with a bereaved child.

Then and now

I once wrote that death, for the British at least, was like Belgium. Everyone knows it’s close but no-one wants to go there. Except now, death seems to be more like air. Everywhere. And if there isn’t death, there is the threat of it.

What a time to be a child.

The effects of loss

When my three children lost their mother, tragically, twelve years ago, death was everywhere for us and in many ways it still is. A death in the family is an event. Grieving is a process. Loss, however, stays with you. It defines you as an adult and anchors you to that time in your childhood, when you want to go back to the point just before the event so that you can not only try and stop it happening but, and this is the heart-breaking bit, be with that person just one more lingering time.

Your life grows around that feeling, not past it.

There is no normal

As a child, school doesn’t stay away for long and normality wants you back. Normality is what other people will be living. It is what other people will be expecting, eventually, soon. But there is a no normal. Not even the ‘new normal’ we are hearing so much about now. Normal died when your mother died. Or your father. Or your sibling. Normal is when tragedy happens to other people and normal is the death of a grandparent or a rabbit or some auntie you met once. Normal is everything in its time. A time to reap. To sow. To live and die.

No, you are now not normal. And school is knocking.

So, what helps?

Talk. Talk to the bereaved child about how they feel. Talk about how the other family members are. Talk about the person they have lost, who is also the most present person in their life right now. Talk about what they remember of that person. Talk them into not having died, for a while at least. Talk with the child about what they miss. Talk that child into being OK with their abnormality. Talk them towards tears, not away from them. Talk about their loss, not yours. Not now.

Don’t talk. Sometimes no words are enough. Just be with them. Listen to that piece of music. Drink that cup of tea. Look at that photo. Hold their hand. Bereavement makes you the loneliest person on the planet. Being with them in their solitude helps.

Act. ‘I didn’t know what to do so I did nothing’. Cowardice, not forgotten.

Anticipate. Anniversaries burn. Be ready for them. Birthdays, Christmases, Mother’s Days, Father’s Days. The days before the event’s anniversary, coming around once again, a dreadful, dreaded annual countdown and a collapse into relief when it’s gone, for another year.

Prioritise. Homework is important. Sort of. School work is important. Sort of. Staying alive, staying out of prison, staying off the streets, staying away from drugs and alcohol, staying together as a family. All of them a statistical presence now. They are important.

Accommodate. Good days and bad days. Good hours and bad hours. Children grieve in puddles, not rivers, they say. Be flexible. Be alert. A grieving child is not looking for an excuse to not participate, to not be there. There’s just this hole to get out of first, then I’ll be back, if you wait for me.

Remember. It hasn’t gone away. ‘You’re not crying, so your mum can’t be dead’, the child says. It doesn’t work that way. I’m between tears and always will be. Come back later.

Forget. Can we just get on and pretend I’m normal today. Tomorrow might be different but today, I’m me.

The difference lies with you

The thing is, I was wrong before. Death always was all around. And as long as there is life, it always will be. And it will enter your classroom, pandemic or no pandemic. And it will come back again after that too. And the difference between that death stealing two lives, the one who has gone and the child who remains, lies with you and the many small acts you take as the caring teacher of a child of loss.


Ian Gilbert is an educator, entrepreneur, award-winning writer and editor and one of the IB Magazine’s 15 leading educational ‘visionaries’ for his work on teaching children to think for themselves.

He has lived and worked in the UK, the Middle East, South America, Asia and is currently based in the Netherlands. Over 25 years ago, he set up Independent Thinking, a network of practitioners and innovators in education to work with schools across the world.


To order a copy of Ian’s book click on the book cover to follow the link to the Independent Thinking Press

Written from the personal experience of a parent and his three children, Independent Thinking on Loss: A little book about bereavement for schools details the ways in which schools can help their pupils come to terms with the death of a parent.


Feature Image: by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Support Images: by Jeff Kingma & Bruce Mewett from Pixabay


Further Reading: The Irish Times, April 22, 2020 How to support grieving children