GTC Scotland

The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Comhairle Choitcheann Teagaisg na h-Alba

Grief and loss

The impact of vicarious trauma should not be ignored

One of the most common life/work experiences that can catch us all unaware is that of grief and loss. This can also be experienced by our learners, but can be quite complex. Our supportive response, whether it be too simplistic or just ignoring the fact (albeit well-meaning), may have unwelcome personal consequences for all concerned. What cannot be understated is the negative impact that grief and loss have on the personal and professional mental health and wellbeing of teachers.

Those who experience grief and loss would normally be pointed towards advice and help from community-focused organisations, mental health practitioners or other specialists. Within learning and teaching settings, most teachers will not have had the opportunity to develop professional knowledge and skills to respond to learners who suffer grief and loss, and there is always the “elephant in the room” when grief and loss are personally experienced by colleagues.

The feeling of grief is a normal response to bereavement and most of us have appropriate coping mechanisms to adjust to these significant events in our life. Grief can also be anticipatory or abnormal. Anticipatory grief is where there is an awareness of a life-limiting condition relating to a relative, friend, colleague or pet, and individuals will experience the full range of emotions. However, for some, the feeling of grief can intensify as personal coping mechanisms become overwhelmed, and can develop into abnormal grief.

Abnormal grief is an emotional reaction that is out of proportion, a delayed reaction sometime later which is not related to a death, experiencing feelings that personal circumstances are not improving, and the onset of physical and mental symptoms (including depression and changes in behaviour). In more serious cases, abnormal grief can lead to clinical depression, panic or other “out of character” behaviour changes.

Loss of someone or something can be experienced through an interrupted relationship with a partner, spouse, sibling, relative, friend, colleague or even a pet. The type of loss experienced can be through a family member leaving, divorce, mental health, physical health or death. So, a learner response to the death of a pet may seem an overreaction within the wider scheme of things, but nevertheless the personal level of grief and loss will be high and at the same level as their response to the break-up of a family relationship or death of a friend or family member. It is how teachers initially respond to personal, learner and colleague grief and loss that will initiate the beginnings of a positive recovery for the individual concerned.

More importantly is the “silent” personal effects of vicarious trauma to which teachers are unaware. Vicarious trauma is when an individual experiences change as a response to someone who may have been hurt, or who may have experienced personal grief and loss. This change can impact on mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing, as it is impossible for a teacher to bring back someone who has died, or for the learner or colleague to ease a teacher’s mind by demonstrating that they have been helped in some way. Teachers should not act as therapists, but should be aware that vicarious trauma is something that should not to be ignored. Support is available to manage this effectively and to “be there” for learners and colleagues.

Online advice

Bereavement support for education professionals, children and families:

About the author

Hugh Smith is an experienced learning and teaching consultant, teacher educator, author and speaker. He has national and international experience as a professional learning consultant for those working in education and training settings. He champions positive mental health and wellbeing as part of effective learning and teaching. Visit his website at: