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Highmark Caring Place provides guidance to school teachers, parents for helping kids back to school when a family member has died over the summer

PITTSBURGH (June 24, 2016) — This week children across Pennsylvania and the country will head back to school. They have new teachers and friends to meet, new classrooms to explore and a brand new school year to look forward to. Yet some children will be looking back. For children who have had a parent, sibling or other close relative die over the summer, returning to school is fraught with special anxiety and discomfort.

"Everyone's grief is different," said Terese Vorsheck, Director of the Highmark Caring Place and a licensed clinical psychologist. "Some children will be helped by talking about their experience, and some will just want to keep it to themselves. Teachers (and fellow students) can be ready to be there if the grieving student needs to talk, but it's important to remember that listening, even more than talking, is the most important thing a teacher can do to provide the child with support."

"Most grieving students say that they want everyone to treat them the same way that they treated them before," Vorsheck added. "In general, they don't like people being extra nice. Yet, while students usually say they don't want to be in the spotlight, they also don't want people to act like nothing happened."

One child in twenty will have a parent die before he or she graduates from high school. Here are some tips for helping grieving children as they return to the classroom. Additional advice is available on the Highmark Caring Place website. This specific link will take you to the brochure "The Grieving Child in the Classroom."

  • Let the child keep a picture of their loved one close to them throughout the school day. A clear plastic photo holder or keychain can accomplish this.
  • Let the child make short phone calls to family members. This will help a child who is preoccupied with fear that something bad will happen to their surviving parent feel safe.
  • Provide a "grief pass." Grieving students can feel they are being watched by teachers and peers, and they worry they will be overwhelmed by grief and cry in front of their friends. A grief pass is a discrete way to notify a teacher they need a break without calling attention to themselves. They can leave a special object on the corner of their desk, and then go to a designated support person or special place without having to ask or explain.
  • Maintain consistency, but be flexible. Returning to a classroom that functions on the same expectations and schedule as before is important to the child's sense of normalcy and stability. However, teachers need to expect that grieving children will be easily distracted, forgetful and have trouble concentrating. Therefore, it is also important to be flexible about deadlines for papers and projects and allow extended time for taking tests.

About the Highmark Caring Place

The mission of the Highmark Caring Place, A Center for Grieving Children, Adolescents and Their Families, is to raise awareness of the needs of grieving children, provide programs to address those needs and empower the community to support children who have experienced the death of a loved one. Since its inception in 1996, the Caring Place has served more than 90,000 family and community members. Financial support from Highmark Inc. allows the Caring Place, with facilities in Lemoyne, Erie, Pittsburgh and Warrendale, Pennsylvania to offer its programs at no cost to the families and the community. For more information, visit


Wendy Morphew
Highmark Health
412-544-3616 (office)
917-697-1782 (cell)