Dealing with grief

The 2004 school year was a tough one for Lerato Mokhele, a Grade 1 teacher at Asteri Primary School, on the border of Hillbrow in Johannesburg. Two young boys in her class always needed special attention.

“One boy had been abandoned by his mother and was living with another family,” Mokhele said.
The other boy lived with his father in Zimbabwe until the father died. “So he was sent here to live with his mother.” When Mokhele found out about the boys’ tragedies, she began to understand the reason for their behaviour problems.

In May this year, she attended a workshop for teachers on The Grieving Child, offered by the Hospice Association for the Witwatersrand. “The course was very practical,” Mokhele said. “Hospice gave us guidelines on how to identify problems, and activities to do with a child who is grieving.”

Mokhele now chairs the school’s bereavement committee. When a Grade 2 learner died recently, the committee organised a memorial service for the whole school.“We invited the parents of the deceased child and every class presented a musical item or poem,” Mokhele recalled. “The service was short but everybody participated.”

The Hospice Association introduced its two-day workshop in 2003. It also offers three Growing through Grief workbooks to use with children of different ages and board games to help affected children to express their feelings. The Magical MazeJourney game focuses on children in grief. The Magical Aids Journey is designed to be used with affected children. The association is seeking a new sponsor so that the Aids board game can be given where it is needed.

The school survey revealed that teachers are seeing a growing number of learners affected by grief. “Children are in a classroom for most of their day, so this is where they are likely to show symptoms of their loss,” said Carin Marcus, the psychosocial training manager at the Hospice Association’s Houghton facility.“They’re likely to turn to a teacher or other school staff for attention.”

The workshop teaches that children don’t grieve like adults do. Younger children have difficulty understanding what death is. They may even feel they are the reason a dead parent “went away”. And as a child grows up, the grief of a parent’s death will return with new meaning.

“Childhood grief is developmental,” Marcus said. “A six-year-old will be sad that daddy’s not here to play ball with him. As an 18-year-old, he will grieve because dad won’t see him finish his studies or get his first job. That loss is constantly revisited.”

For this reason, she advises schools to follow a learner as he or she progresses from class to class.

The problem is compounded in poorer communities, where children often raise their orphaned siblings. Lynne Herrmann, a Western Cape education official, said the province will start rolling out new training early next year, with the help of hospices and NGOs, to help teachers support child-headed households.

“Teachers are taking on a more pastoral role in their communities,” Herrmann said. “They need to liaise with social services, the Department of Health and NGOs on behalf of their learners. They need basic counselling skills.”

Liz Gwyther, the education and research coordinator of the Hospice Palliative Care Association of South Africa, said she knows of no move so far to train teachers on a national level. Yet the United Nations has estimated that by 2015, South Africa will have up to 4,8-million Aids orphans.

Herrmann said that many teachers feel traumatised as they watch their learners suffer. Marcus said there is nothing wrong with teachers showing their own grief: “It’s important for children to see that we can cry.

“The greatest gift you can give a child is the gift of self. That child isn’t coming to you because you have perfect counselling skills. She’s coming to you because you are you. So, rather be a human being. Because that’s what is going to help the child.”

Where to find help

The Hospice Association of the Witwatersrand offers workshops, workbooks and board games. For more information in Johannesburg call Tel: (011) 483 9100, Fax: (011) 728 3104, e-mail In Soweto call Tel: (011) 982 5835, Fax: (011) 982 7471.

The Hospice Palliative Care Association of South Africa lists hospices throughout the country on its website: For more info Tel: (021) 531 2094/5, Fax (021) 531 1706 or e-mail Hospice staff have received teacher’s training in Port Elizabeth: Tel: (041) 360 7070, Fax: (041) 360 1279, e-mail and in Bloemfontein Tel: (051) 433 4462/63, Fax: (051) 433-4465, e-mail

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