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Coping with bereavement

Sinéad Mc Brearty.jpg

I have been putting off writing this blog all week. Even now, as the deadline hurtles toward me, I find myself willingly distracted by the questions of my seven and nine-year-old coworkers. 

But the page is still here, and I still need to engage professionally with the topic of bereavement, and what it has to do with me as a leader. Excess deaths have topped 65,000 in the UK. That’s equivalent to the whole population of Margate. It’s grim, and really thinking about it is painful. 

In addition to these ‘excess’ deaths, a further 125,000 people have died, and until recently, most families have been unable to process their grief in the usual way.  

Up and down the country, many people, many children, many educators are grieving, either still in the initial disorientation of a very recent loss, or still affected by a loss from March or April. During lockdown, the normal rituals of loss and grief were suspended. Along with the rituals, for many, a sense of closure remains suspended. Just this week, I have stood out on my street as the hearses of two neighbours finally headed off to their final resting places: they both died in April, and their families have been waiting to say their final goodbyes. 

I’d rather be thinking about work than bereavement as if those two things were currently separable. As leaders at this time, we could be forgiven for wanting people to focus on their work and deal with their grief in their own time. And if grief were easily contained, many people would want to do that themselves. Unfortunately, grief is a little less accommodating, and it has a habit of rising at the least welcome moments.  

As leaders and managers, I have come to believe that we are best served by taking a longer-term view and supporting people to recognise and attend to their needs. During my early career, I experienced a series of losses and serious illnesses in my close circle. I staked my reputation on powering through, able to ride it out without it affecting my performance. Or so I thought. When a senior colleague took me aside and directed me to take care of myself, it was a turning point for my relationship to the organisation and my own leadership. I moved from brittle resilience to something more sustainable. My loyalty and commitment to the firm went through the roof: it had helped me to live a better life. 

There are four simple things we can do for our staff:
  1. Acknowledge their loss
  2. Recognise the impact that it has and will have on them
  3. Empathise. Show that we understand that grief is a difficult, but perfectly normal, response to loss
  4. Offer support, from letting the individual know that they are not alone, through to helping them identify what they need. Where possible, allow them the flexibility to grieve in the way that works for them. 

It’s also important for leaders to role model self-care, both as a general principle and when we experience a loss. There are still many leaders who haven’t taken a day off since 23 March. I wonder what message this sends to staff? Are these leaders minimising or overriding their own needs or the needs of their own families? Is the implication that such stoicism is a good thing? The literature is very clear that self-care and recovery are key elements of good performance, and they ought to be recognised as an important aspect of good professional practice.  

There will, of course, also be loss faced by pupils. In a recent video interview with me, the brilliant Dr Erin Hope Thomson from The Loss Foundation shared practical advice on dealing with bereavement, including how to respond to our grieving children. 

She counsels us to ensure we understand the facts of the loss and understand exactly what the child knows. Find out how the child is doing, and make space available for them should they need it at school. After that, Erin recommends encouraging normality.  

The pandemic has affected the country unevenly. For particular communities, by geography and ethnicity, the impact has been brutal. In some places, this is amplified by other factors, including poverty or unsafe domestic environments. As a consequence, some teachers and school staff will be dealing with a disproportionate number of grieving children. For the health of individuals and the whole school, it is important that these members of staff have strong line management support, the opportunity to debrief and access to professional counselling.  

I don’t have a funny ending for this blog. I avoided writing it because it makes me feel sad. Sometimes we need to sit with the sadness, but there are ways we can help one another when experiencing it.  

About Sinéad Mc Brearty

Sinéad Mc Brearty is CEO at Education Support. She began her career at KPMG before moving to the not-for-profit sector. Previous roles include deputy chief executive at Social Enterprise London and director at award-winning social enterprise Women Like Us. Before joining Education Support, Sinéad was an organisational development consultant and a visiting lecturer at Imperial College London and The Royal College of Art.  She is a trustee of The Kaleidoscope Trust and a governor of a south London primary school. 

Education Support is the mental health and well-being charity for the education workforce across the UK.  www.educationsupport.org.uk.

First published 07 July 2020