Lessons about Grief, Trauma, and Loss

Use these lessons to facilitate discussion and help students process complex emotions around tragic events.

If you’ve dealt with grief in your own life, you know that it never really leaves you. For some children as well as adults, it can take years to process a traumatic event.

These resources below are available for educators, parents, and counselors to use with care in helping students process complex emotions around tragic events. These lessons for grades 3-9 include stories featuring main characters who are dealing with deep sadness, who’ve lost loved ones, or who find strength through friendships and community.

Since these texts deal with sensitive issues, we recommend that educators take great care in selecting them. We also recommend that educators consider reading these as a class or in small groups while focusing on the Discussion questions to give students a break from being assessed, and a space to discuss their feelings, if appropriate.

Elementary

A note: Younger students process grief and trauma differently than older students. These resources may be more accessible.

All Saints’ Day at Night” by Linda Rae Apolzon (3rd Grade)

Content warning: This text references the death of the main character’s grandfather. This may be a sensitive topic for some students.

In this short story, Tomek celebrates All Saints’ Day, during which families all over Poland remember those who have died. Tomek, his mother, and his grandmother visit the cemetery to celebrate his grandfather’s life. This text provides a meaningful opportunity to have students share special memories and discuss how we can honor those we have lost.

Shells” by Cynthia Rylant (4th Grade)

Content warning: This text references the death of the main character’s parents. This may be a sensitive topic for some students.

In this powerful short story, Michael has been living with Aunt Esther since his parents died. He feels lonely and frequently clashes with Esther, who is very different from his parents. When Esther helps Michael make his new pet hermit crab feel more comfortable, they begin to understand each other better. Students will be moved by how Michael and his aunt work to heal their relationship.

Aly’s Discovery” by Jacqueline Adams (4th Grade)

Aly, who has recently moved, feels sad because there aren’t any kids around to play with her. Her new neighbor, Miss Strawbridge, suggests some fun activities. Eventually, Aly realizes that Miss Strawbridge loves the same hobbies she does. This story’s message about leaning on friends when experiencing a difficult change often resonates with students.

Into the Rapids” by Bradford H. Robie (5th Grade)

In this compelling short story, Wyatt is on a whitewater rafting trip and suddenly falls into the fast-moving river. By remembering his guide’s instructions to stay calm in an emergency, Wyatt is able to focus on swimming back to safety. After reading, students can discuss their own strategies for coping with challenging situations.

Underface” by Shel Silverstein (5th Grade)

In this short but profound poem, the speaker describes how underneath their “outside face,” they have another face people cannot see. This other face is less smiley, less sure, but closer to who the speaker really is. This text provides a good entry point for helping students talk about big or uncomfortable feelings.

Sometimes, History is Sadness” by David White (5th Grade)

Content warning: This text references multiple historical tragedies, including September 11th. These may be sensitive topics for some students.

In this informational text, the author examines how tragedies throughout history have affected people in different ways. He explains that fear and grief are normal reactions and emphasizes that talking to friends and family helps people recover. This text, which ends on a hopeful note about the healing process, provides students with the opportunity to further discuss strategies to process their emotions after traumatic events.

Secondary

Eating Together” by Li-Young Lee (6th Grade)

Content warning: This text references the death of the speaker’s father. This may be a sensitive topic for some students.

In this moving poem, the speaker is sitting at the dinner table with his mother, sister, and brother after his father’s death. The speaker’s description of the meal they share lays out his family’s grief. This text provides a meaningful opportunity to discuss how people who love each other can gather strength from one another during difficult times.

She was paralyzed by gun fire as a child in Dorchester. Now she’s graduatinging from high school” by Laura Crimaldi (7th Grade)

Content warning: This text references the experience and impact of gun violence. This may be a sensitive topic for some students.

In this informational text, the author describes how Kai Leigh Harriott, who was struck and paralyzed by gunfire at three years old, didn’t allow this tragedy to dictate her childhood. Harriott now balances being a normal teen with anti-violence advocacy work. Harriott’s powerful story and compassion will move and inspire your students.

The Listener” by Alan King (7th Grade)

Content warning: This text references the death of the speaker’s aunt. This may be a sensitive topic for some students.

In this nostalgic poem, the speaker pictures his deceased aunt as he listens to a shopper laugh from another aisle in the supermarket. He remembers her pride in his success and her wise advice, and understands that she is always with him. After reading, students can discuss the power of remembering the wonderful things about those we have lost.

Blue” by Francesca Lia Block (8th Grade)

Content warning: This text references parental abandonment. This may be a sensitive topic for some students.

When La’s mother leaves her family one day, a tiny blue creature emerges from La’s closet to comfort her.  “Blue” encourages La to write about her mother as a way to process her grief. This is a useful story for students who find it helpful to share difficult feelings through writing or art, as they will find La’s experience relatable and empowering.

Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou (8th Grade)

In this beautiful poem, the speaker repeatedly asserts that no matter the adversity she faces, she will always rise. After reading, students can share their understanding of how the speaker’s experience relates to the challenges they or their communities face. Then, they can discuss how the poem’s message can help inform their response to these challenges.

Help-Giving” by Set to Go (9th Grade)

In this lesson, students will learn three steps to effectively help others. By identifying signs, listening to others, and taking action, they can support their friends and peers through challenging situations. After reading, students can discuss why it’s important to recognize when someone needs serious help and ways they can implement the strategies from the text in their everyday lives.

Characteristics of Resilient People” by Set to Go (9th Grade)

After traumatic events, it is natural for students to feel helpless or overwhelmed. This informational text details specific characteristics and strategies that students can use to develop resilience in the face of trauma or adversity. After reading, they can discuss which points from the article resonated most with them, and how they might use those strategies to help them process strong emotions.