Grief and Loss in the Classroom: Holding SPACE for Students Coping with Cancer in their Lives.

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When I was 12 years old, my dog Shadow died. I’d known him
my whole life. I was devastated. This was the first loss I experienced. I went
to school the next day-tearful, moody, sad, angry-in shock and disbelief.  I was a mess. I remember opening the lid of
my desk and hiding my tears. I was embarrassed about the scope of my grief. I
didn’t know what to do with it. With time, and a new puppy, I began to recover
and adjust to life without Shadow. But it was tough.

Back in those times, grief and loss in the classroom were private, protected and not discussed. Times have changed-but student’s families and school staff need guidance to help facilitate and normalize grief in our lives.

Let’s also remember that loss isn’t just about death. Losses
happen every day in our lives. For a child coping with cancer in their life
losses could include:

  • the loss of hair.
  • loss of energy to play with their friends.
  • the loss of special time with a parent who had to go back to the hospital because of side effects from their own treatment.
  • the loss of being able to participate in activities because a family’s schedule is in chaos while navigating treatment.

Maybe we don’t think of these as losses, but we do grieve
for these things and experiences just the same.

So, how can we help a student who is grieving in the classroom?

We can do this by holding space. To hold space is to be available to listen without judgment. To hold space isn’t to try to fix someone with platitudes – my favorite one when it comes to pet loss, “well, you can get another dog”. To hold space is walking the path – the hills and valleys – with another and being happy with just being along for the walk. It is giving up influence and control. It is allowing the grieving person to be…and to grieve in their way.

I came up with a simple mnemonic to help guide our process
of holding space:

S= Supportive: we provide support in a way that works for the grieving person.

P=Presence: we are present and give the grieving person permission to be in and with their grief.

A=Attentive: we attend to the needs of the grieving person-even if it means putting our needs on the back burner.

C=Creative: we allow grief to happen where it needs to happen and when it needs to happen.

E=Empathic: we are able to understand and share emotions, feeling and behaviors.

This method is easy to grasp and something we can teach to classmates and friends. It helps the student, their classmates, their family and the school staff. It encourages the recognition of grief and loss across our lifespan and helps us get away from labeling those struggling with loss as “stuck” or “unable to move on.” It helps them to make sense of their losses and perhaps helps them to think about making meaning of the loss.

Acknowledging the experience of loss throughout the lifecycle can also help us cope with losses throughout our lives. So a friend is struggling with loss, think about holding SPACE for them, and walking with them in their journey. I assure you, they will be grateful for your presence.


Christina is a clinical oncology social worker who joined the OncoLink team in 2014. Christina blogs about resources available to the cancer community, as well as general information about coping with cancer practically, emotionally, and spiritually. Christina is also an instructor at the Penn School of Social Policy and Practice. In her spare time, she loves to knit and volunteer with her therapy dogs, Linus and Huckleberry. She also loves to travel, cook and is an avid Philly sports fan.





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