New Jersey is now requiring grief instruction for teens in public schools. Here’s why that matters.

A teenage student holds his heads while studying in a library.
New Jersey will now require public schools to incorporate instruction on grief into health and physical education classes for students in grades 8 to 12. (Getty Images)

Grief and loss are experiences we will inevitably all encounter; and now the state of New Jersey is trying to ensure that more young people are prepared for it. On Jan. 4, N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law bipartisan legislation requiring the state’s public schools to incorporate instruction on grief into health and physical education classes for students in grades eight to 12.

“Grief can be a debilitating experience that lasts a lifetime when not addressed properly,” Murphy said. “It is my hope that prioritizing the teaching of grief and loss in schools will provide students with the tools and resources they need to cope with the challenges of life.”

Why teaching teens about grief matters

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, about 90% of children experience the death of a close friend or family member during their childhood. That’s why Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, tells Yahoo Life that instruction on grief should start even earlier — but eighth grade is “better late than never.”

“I'm not necessarily suggesting it has to be a formal curriculum in kindergarten,” he says. “But if there is open conversation and discussion, kids learn it's OK to have feelings that are strong when someone dies, and they figure out what they can do — both to help themselves and help others.”

What does instruction on grief for teens look like?

Children begin to understand the concept of death and its finality and irreversibility between the ages of five and seven, on average. In kindergarten, developing that knowledge can look more informal, like talking about it when the class goldfish dies, or seeing a dead bird at the park. But by the time students enter eighth grade, Schonfeld says their understanding of death is roughly equivalent to that of an adult, and instruction on grief can be more sophisticated.

In New Jersey, public schools will be required to instruct students on physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms of grief, as well as coping techniques for grief and loss. Lindsay Schambach, the executive director of the group Imagine, a Center for Coping with Loss, told WHYY that her organization and others will be working with the N.J. Department of Education to develop a program. While therapy wouldn’t be introduced in health classes, she said it would include a review of “the most up-to-date information as it exists on grief, what is loss, what is grief, what are healthy coping mechanisms that exist, and then across the state we also believe it’s really important to teach children how best to support others who are grieving.”

Though Schonfeld isn’t involved in the New Jersey program, he said instruction on grief for teens also involves teaching that you can experience grief not just from the death of a loved one, but from other types of loss too. “When you're helping someone cope with grief, you're helping them deal with the absence of something that's important in their lives,” he explains.

He adds: “If you think about, in the pandemic, people experienced a lot of distress, and I kept hearing people talk about it as trauma. But most of it wasn't trauma; most of it was actually grief.”

How you can help a teen who’s grieving

Schonfeld has a few tips for parents and caregivers on how they can help teens dealing with grief or loss.

  • Don’t minimize their grief. “I tell people that if it begins with 'at least,' it's probably something to reconsider,” Schonfeld says. “'At least he's not in pain,' or 'I know your mother died, but at least you still have a dad' — all of these are ways that we try and minimize the distress that people express because we don't like to see it.”

  • Don’t focus on personal loss experiences. “A lot of times people go right to, 'This is what I went through,' or 'I understand what you're going through,’” Schonfeld says. “I usually tell people, particularly if they're not a family member or close friend, don't focus on your personal loss experiences. Focus on the child, what they're feeling, what they're going through, what is working for them, what is not working for them.”

  • Normalize talking about uncomfortable topics. “Talk about topics that are important, even if they're uncomfortable,” Schonfeld says. “If we can talk about death in eighth grade, it's a step in the right direction. It's something that's going to happen to every individual, and they're going to be grieving at some point.”

How teens can help others experiencing grief

New Jersey Assemblyman Reginald Atkins also indicated that the state’s public school instruction on grief will involve teaching teens how to help others grappling with grief or loss.

“Far too often, people don’t know what to say to someone who is grieving or how to support a friend or loved one who has suffered a loss,” he said. “Now, thanks to [bill] A-5015, students will receive the instructional tools and grief support they need to comfort their family and friends through difficult periods.”

Here’s how Schonfeld says teens can help fellow classmates and others experiencing grief.

  • Invite them to share how they’re feeling with you — but only when they’re ready. “If you go up to them in the hallway before they walk into class and say, 'How are you doing since your mother died,' they may not want to talk about it at that time,” Schonfeld says. “But let them know that you're aware it happened, and you're sorry that they had to go through that and that you're there if they would like to talk at some point.”

  • Offer practical help. Schonfeld suggests offering to provide some concrete support. “Offer practical help, like, 'I know you missed several days of school when your mother was in the hospital. I've prepared some notes I can share with you, if that will be helpful.' Or, 'I imagine it might be difficult at times for you to pay attention in class or study. So I'd be happy to study with you when that works for you.'"