Creating space for the language of grief
Acknowledging the emotional distress of a breakup, or death of a loved one, can foster a compassionate environment for the learners.
This is a time of collective and private loss, from the curbing of freedoms once taken for granted, and widespread economic downturn, to the anguish and tears of bereavement shed in millions of homes. Grief is a universal experience, yet it rarely features in teaching materials, programmes or training.
Acknowledging the emotional distress of a breakup, or death of a loved one, can foster a compassionate environment that validates the lived experience of the learners and, on a linguistic level, is an opportunity to expand their repertoire of functional and situational language.
Bereavement expert Inge Corless, along with a team of researchers, devised a model of grief (2014) that incorporates four ways of using language to express grief; I think these are a useful starting point to giving grief a voice in our classrooms:
Activities that draw on narrative language include journal writing, obituaries, eulogies, poetry and literature. Telling the story of one’s experience of grief can help the narrator process the episode, whilst providing a meaningful opportunity for language development. Moreover, storytelling can also be transformative for the audience; in ground-breaking research conducted by neuroscientist Uri Hasson, brain patterns of the listener actually synchronised with those of the storyteller. This process of neural coupling can be utilised to cultivate empathy and a stronger sense of classroom community.
Symbols are objects, actions and rituals that represent the person or relationship that has been lost. For example, leaving flowers at the scene of a fatal car crash, or playing someone’s favourite song at their funeral are both symbolic representations; they can vary greatly between countries, cultures and religions and therefore lend themselves well to discussion-based speaking lessons, project work and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL).
Metaphors are often used to express particularly complex feelings – such as a broken heart – and the fact that they spark the imagination means that they are far more powerful than literal language. Learners can be introduced to common metaphors relating to grief and use them to represent their personal or collective experience.
They could also be invited to come up with their own figurative language as part of a creative writing activity. It could also be interesting to compare the use of metaphors in English with other languages they speak.
This involves examining aspects of grief in order to draw out ideas that might be useful in processing and learning from the experience. There could be research and discussion-based activities on the stages of grief and where to seek support. Teaching functional and situational language would also come into play here e.g. expressing emotional distress; showing sympathy; best and worst things to say to someone who has lost a loved one. In addition to linguistic development, learners can deepen their awareness of socio-cultural norms and values, as well as acquire a psychological toolkit.
Addressing a topic such as grief should be done in an emotionally and culturally sensitive manner, negotiating lesson content and seeking consent wherever a learner’s personal experiences are involved and where they might feel exposed; always consult your Director of Studies and colleagues beforehand if you need support and if you are working with children or vulnerable people.