When should children return to school after a bereavement

When should children return to school after a bereavement?

A question we are often asked following the death of a parent, sibling or other important person, is “should my child go back to school yet?”

There are many things to consider when decided when your child should return to school after a bereavement, including how your child feels about school, what stage they are at, what exams or events are coming up and what effect it would have if they stayed off school for a long time. It can be helpful to include, where possible, your child in the decision about when they go back to school, as well as discussing this openly with the school.

Every person’s grief is unique and everyone has different responses and reactions to bereavement, therefore, it isn’t possible to give a categorical ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. However, here are a number of things to think about as you make the decision that is right for your family.

How does my child feel about school?

School provides a familiar, routine part of children’s lives. Many children who have been bereaved find returning to school comforting, even quite soon after someone has died, because it shows them that some things are reliable and stay the same – even if so much else is changing.

When so much is happening at home (for example, funeral arrangements being made, many visitors dropping by), children may appreciate the distraction of being in school with their friends, their teacher and all the comfort of a routine. Other children may want to be at home and involved in all these important discussions about the person who has died and may find being at school during this time a source of anxiety.

For those who find school more challenging or already experience issues with friendships, for example, it can feel overwhelming to return too quickly. They may be concerned about breaking down in front of people or being unable to focus or contribute to lessons.

What is happening at school that they might miss?

1. Exams

Is your child about to take exams that need additional learning at school, for example GCSEs or A levels? Remember than even public exams can be re-taken at a later date.

2. Special occasions

Is there an event that your child has been anticipating, for example, a school concert, school trip or sports competition? It may affect their initial response to the bereavement if it is also the cause of missing a longed-for event.

3. Leaving their current school

Is your child approaching a transition time away from their present school, for example, the end of junior or secondary school? These can be very important for children as a positive ending, a positive moving forward with or without their friends and leaving behind the familiarity of school surroundings. When such a major goodbye to someone close has happened to a bereaved child or young person, it is important to manage other ‘goodbyes’ as gently as possible.

4. Starting a new school

Is your child approaching a transition to a new school, for example starting school for the first time or starting secondary school? Sadly, bereavement can happen in the summer holidays. It can feel very daunting to start a new school as ‘the child whose relative died in the holidays’, however, it is even harder to start two weeks later when everyone else has worked out their way around the new building and started making new friends.

What would happen if they stay off school for a long time?

If a child stays away from school for a long time, it can be harder for them to return and may be harder for them to pick up their friendships. This, in turn, may make a child feel more isolated and alone.

Quite apart from missing out on schoolwork, it can be harder to handle the separation from the rest of the family if being at home has become the normal.

Most – hopefully all – schools will be understanding about an absence following the death of someone close. They can also help make the return to school as stress-free as possible. It may be that a part-time return could happen if this feels helpful – maybe going back in for mornings for the first week – or the school might have other ideas about how to ease the child back in.

Support for the school

We have a number of resources available on our website that you could pass on to the school to help them to better support your child when they return to school:

  • Free online bereavement training
  • In-depth bereavement training courses
  • Strategy for schools
  • Example bereavement policy
  • Guide to supporting bereaved children in school

Find them all here.

Further guidance and support

You or your child’s school can speak to our experienced team about when your child should return to school – they can offer guidance and information about individual situations. You can call our Helpline on 08088 020 021 or email ask@winstonswish.org.

Other resources you might find helpful

Bereavement support for schools
Support for schools

Resources for schools supporting grieving pupils, including a template bereavement policy, strategy and guide for schools and online training.

Publications and resources from Winston's Wish
Publications and resources

Our specialist books include ones on supporting children and young people after a death through suicide, homicide and in the military.