What You Need to Know About Grief Triggers

Three tips to help students who are experiencing grief.

April 2016, Volume 39, Issue 8

Grief triggers are sudden reminders of a person who has died. They elicit powerful emotional responses in grieving children. They are especially common in the first few months after a death, but may occur at any time.

Here are three helpful things to know.

1. Grief triggers can be intense and unsettling for students. The sudden reminder and strong reaction are unexpected. The student hasn’t prepared for the flood of powerful emotions that occurs. Students may feel frightened or out of control. They may think they are losing ground after starting to feel some relief from their grief. Their reactions—perhaps tears, anger or a need to escape—may embarrass them.

2. Informed school professionals can support students who experience grief triggers. It helps to explain ahead of time that such reactions may occur. Let students know that, while intense, the immediate experience will pass.

Collaborate with the student to develop a plan for grief triggers. This often includes identifying a safe place the student can go (library, nurse’s office, counseling office, study hall). Work out a special signal that doesn’t draw the attention of the entire class but does allow the student to go to that safe space when necessary. You might invite the student to call a family member or arrange support from a counselor or school nurse.

3. You can anticipate some likely triggers and take steps to minimize them. Triggers often occur around holidays or anniversaries (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, anniversary of the death). Reach out to grieving students at these times.

Introduce activities or discussions in ways that acknowledge absences and offer alternatives. For a Father’s Day activity, invite students to focus on their father or another important male adult in their lives. For discussions about serious illness, violence or accidental death, recognize that students may have lost family members or close friends in these ways.

Learn more about children’s experiences during grief and ways to offer support at the website of the Coalition to Support Grieving Students. NAESP is a member of the Coalition.

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