Four Ways to Support Grieving Students Through Writing
contributed by Brittany R. Collins
Approximately 700,000 young people in the United States lost a parent during 2020-21, with the COVID-19 pandemic boosting bereavement rates—not only due to the virus, but to the increased violence, substance use, and requisite illness that it engendered.
Researchers have revealed how these ramifications disproportionately impacted, and continue to impact, historically minoritized communities, those most harmed by inequitable access to responsive, unbiased healthcare, and whose lived realities in an unjust world themselves correlate with increased likelihoods of disease—a ‘weathering‘ of the body under the persistent stress of injustice.
For young people, the loss of a loved one—especially of a parent, guardian, or other primary caregiver—can pose a significant disruption in development. It may constitute an early childhood trauma leading to later-life mental and physical health implications, especially if interwoven with other experiences of inequity.
When considering differentiating instruction, we must consider bereavement alongside the other contextual factors and life experiences we consider when building supportive classroom spaces. Writing offers one way to do so.
A Possible Role For Teachers
It’s important to note that teachers are not trained mental health professionals—and role clarity is a critical component of maintaining adult mental health when working with youth, especially in the face of an unprecedented youth mental health crisis. It’s also important to note that young people should never be put on the spot to make disclosures about loss or grief, but neither should they be silenced when bringing up personal experiences in the learning space.
To honor these tensions and center everyone’s well-being, children and adults, at school, the following writing activities offer ways for personal reflection that may support those experiencing loss while offering differentiated options for engagement.
1: Expressive Writing
Research in the psychological sciences shows that expressive writing, or writing that uses emotion words (e.g., sad, angry, delighted, awestruck), improves mental and physical well-being—with a correlation between greater numbers of emotion words and higher levels of impact.
To apply this finding to practice, create intentional, private spaces for students to engage in writing—perhaps distributing journals and making space for ‘writing stretches’ in which students keep their pen or pencil moving, noticing what emotion words come up for them that day, using those words as prompts to propel their freeform storytelling. The Feelings Wheel is a helpful resource for identifying and sharing feeling words.
2: Allowing Choice in Writing Topics
Choice bolsters agency, and agency is a critical tenet of trauma-informed care, given that the situations that cause grief and trauma are often those that leave young people without control and agency. Infusing consistent, meaningful opportunities for students to have a say in and over their learning offers a reclamation of autonomy.
See also CPTSD: Hardest Year Of My Life
In the writing classroom, this might mean allowing students to design and/or select their own prompts and writing topics or storytelling formats—according to Universal Design for Learning best practices—when multiple modalities would guide them toward shared learning objectives. “Being able to choose their own topics meant the room was full of children’s stories of the reasons for their choices,” writes Elizabeth Dutro in The Vulnerable Heart of Literacy: Centering Trauma as Powerful Pedagogy. “Research is often deeply connected to autobiography.”
3: Teaching Letter Writing
As the popular YA novel by Ava Dellaira, Love Letters to the Dead, demonstrates, letter writing—whether to real or fictional recipients—can serve as a powerful vessel for processing emotions, communicating thoughts and feelings, and paying tribute to important people in our lives who have passed away, allowing writers to leverage literacy for learning amid loss.
Using letters from Dellaira’s text as a model, invite students to experiment with letter form: writing to an ancestor, perhaps, or a celebrity; their past or future self; someone with whom they no longer speak; someone they hope to one day meet. There are many variations on this prompt, and while they do not all connect directly with grief, they may create space for explorations of the emotional themes most resonant to students in the moment.
Grief, too, it’s important to name, is not always tied to a death—’living losses’ include:
–Moving to a new school, state, or town
-Experiencing a parent’s divorce
-Enduring a familial falling-out
Letters–and writing more broadly–can make space for young people to make sense of these experiences.
4: Responding to Content Alongside Structure
Avoidance is a natural coping mechanism when faced with any pain, but it can also perpetuate othering for students experiencing hardship. This means that, as a caring adult in a young person’s life, if a student does elect to explore themes of grief and loss in their writing, it is best to acknowledge their storytelling, rather than circumvent the substance of their piece, commenting on writing technique alone.
An Easy Place To Start Supporting Grieving Students Through Writing
If you aren’t sure where to start, consider thanking the student for trusting you enough to share their story; share a lesson that you learned from reading the piece, or a question or thought that it inspired you to entertain; connect the students’ lived literature experiences; or express empathy and validation for the courage the young person is demonstrating through their work.
Of course, if a student’s writing sparks concern for their or others’ well-being, you will need to connect with—and connect students with—additional mental health resources. Identify your support team in advance so you feel prepared should concerning situations arise, but know that articulations of grief can be healing, writing, and reading vehicles for processing hardship in the space of a supportive learning community. By making space for this work in careful, moderated ways, you offer students resources to turn to when coping with challenging emotions across the lifespan.
About Brittany R. Collins
Brittany designs and supports educational and professional programming at Write the World while working directly with students, teachers, and partners to support their platform use. Having previously developed and overseen Write the World’s Creative Writing Workshops, Brittany channels her passion for designing programs that foster and facilitate engaging learning environments for Write the World’s educator-facing programs. She connects pedagogy, technology, and professional learning to collaborate with teachers worldwide.
Beyond Write the World, Brittany is a writer, teacher, and instructional coach in the fields of trauma-informed teaching and social-emotional learning. Her book, Learning from Loss: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Supporting Grieving Students, was published in 2021, and she has published over 40 peer-reviewed and public-facing articles in The Washington Post, Education Week, Edutopia, National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Inside Higher Ed, and Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Usable Knowledge, among other outlets. Brittany has facilitated programming for students and teachers through Harvard Graduate School of Education; Columbia University; PBS Learning Media; National Association of Social Workers (NY); New York University; and School Crisis Recovery and Renewal; among other organizations.
Brittany studied English and Education at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Creative Nonfiction at the Yale Writers’ Workshop; and holds a Certificate in Traumatic Stress Studies from the Trauma Research Foundation.