Supporting Parents through the Stages of Grief

In my work as a special educator, I have met many parents of children diagnosed with disabilities. I have noticed that all of these parents have one thing in common: they are in various stages of grief. They are grieving for the loss of the ‘normal child’ they thought they would have – the one with limbs intact, the one with no speech difficulties, no neurological dysfunction, or no serious illnesses that impact on their daily quality of life.

Just as in the first of the five stages of grief identified by researcher, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, some parents are in denial, simply unwilling to acknowledge that a problem exists with their child’s ability to learn and function in the school setting. Some parents are angry and often flare up at school staff at the slightest setback or perceived lack of progress in their child’s education. Others are in the bargaining phase where they are desperately seeking out any kind of intervention possible, no matter the cost or lack of empirical evidence to back up its likelihood of success. Yet others are depressed and seeking out professional help and guidance to come to terms with the harsh reality of their child’s significant needs.

The final stage of grief identified in Kubler-Ross’s research was that of acceptance. Parents at this stage often rejoice in the gains their children make, have realistic goals for them when creating individual learning plans and see their children as they are, rather than how they hoped they would be. This, of course, most aligns with how the child’s teacher views them.

I have noted that these stages of grief can be cyclical in nature, triggered by key moments in a child’s education such as his/her first year at school, or the transition to a high school setting. Even the end-of-year transition from a much-loved teacher and established classroom (where the parent perceives their child has been safe and successful in their learning) to a new, unknown teacher and classroom can be fraught with anxiety for parents and bring on a new wave of grief.

As educators, it is our role first and foremost to recognize these stages of grief in the parents we work with, to support them in working through these stages of grief with empathy and compassion and to be the best educators we can be, so that their children – our students – can reach their highest potential, in spite of their disabilities.

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