I am a teacher in a day school and a student will be returning to class after experiencing a family tragedy. I am unsure of how to approach this situation and I would like to provide guidance for both the student and the classmates to make the reintegration process as smooth as possible. What advice can you offer in this challenging situation?
This is, sadly, a common dilemma facing both children and adults. When someone is returning to school, shul or work following an absence related to mourning, illness or other crisis, it is important to have a plan of “dos and don’ts” so that the transition is not awkward or hurtful. Let’s look first at how the situation is handled in Jewish law. The custom is that when a man who has been sitting shiva returns to the shul, he is called up to the Torah. One facet of the practice of giving him an aliya is to demonstrate that he is welcome and is once again part of the congregational community.
When a student has been away because of an illness or loss, it is a wholesome and healthy gesture to demonstrate that the class welcomes him or her back and wants them to return to the social environment. The concern, of course, is doing so while remaining sensitive to the student’s own feelings of sadness, worry or self-consciousness. They might be feeling ill at ease, or concerned about having missed schoolwork, or might still be preoccupied with distress and memories of their loss or ordeal. The return to school should not become awkward for the student, the teacher or the rest of the class.
A general rule to follow is that prior to the return, the teacher recommends that each classmate takes a moment to approach that student one-to-one and simply say, “You have had a rough time. It’s good to have you back,” or “You were missed. Glad that you can rejoin the class.” Generally, it is best to avoid flooding the child with questions. They do not want to be interrogated, and asking them for details may be an unwanted and uncomfortable invasion of their wish for privacy.
Returning to school should feel natural and normal. Good friends should remain good friends. Mediocre friends or those with minimal prior relationship with the student should not use this time to try becoming best friends, which will feel unnatural to the student. A good friend should inform the student that if she or he wants to take a walk and talk, they will be there for them. If the student does not feel like talking but would appreciate their company, they will be there for them too. Friends can offer to help the student catch up with assignments and homework. Teachers too should quietly approach the student and inquire about how they are doing at this time, and offer any support or time needed to return to their schoolwork.
Most youngsters do not want a lot of pity nor do they want to feel that others see them as needy, impaired or no longer capable of regular tasks. No one should make assumptions about how the child is feeling or what they have been through. If he or she feels safe and cared about, they might selectively share elements of their experience. At times, a student wants to get back into their routine and not disclose their experience. This should be respected and no one should expect tears, or out-of-character conduct. When a student is behaving in ways which do attract concern about their functioning, this is best brought up with the school counselor or principal so that helpful steps can be taken. Otherwise, the classroom is not a venue for counseling or probing a student. Rather, it is a safe haven for readapting to one’s former routine and schedule, so the best approach is to normalize the school atmosphere for the returning student.
A final caveat: very young children will generally not need preparation prior to a classmate’s return. They do not comprehend the realities associated with another child’s trauma, they may not be attuned to the emotions experienced by that child, and they usually do not track the passage of time or the causes of a friend’s absence. The integration into the classroom is often automatic once that child is ready to return.
It’s important to remember that everyone grieves differently and it is in our hands to respect each individual’s own process, even if it’s not what you might expect or have experienced personally. Our compassion and support for the student will help them and their classmates heal and move forward together.
Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is a forensic and clinical psychologist, and director of Chai Lifeline Crisis Services. To contact Chai Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis helpline, call 855-3-CRISIS or email [email protected]. Learn more at www.chailifeline.org/crisis.