How School Professionals Can Help a Grieving Student
The goals of school professionals dealing with death should include the following:
- Acknowledge the death honestly.
- Allow the student(s) to mourn — to ventilate their reactions and feelings.
- Provide a supportive presence.
- Anticipate special needs.
- Offer an outlet for the desire of other students to help the one grieving.
Death of Grandparents, Extended Family, and Friends
Deaths of grandparents, other extended family members, and friends are very significant for elementary school aged children because they are often their first encounters with death.
When a child mentions such a death, the teacher or counselor should make every effort to drop everything and listen with a comment like, “I’m so sorry. Tell me what happened.”
While it probably will not be necessary to devote lengthy classroom time to these deaths, it does need to be acknowledged in the classroom “family.” With the bereaved child’s permission, tell the class what happened and ask if others have had a similar experience. Allow time for sharing.
Death of the Family Member of a Student
Elementary school children can feel very anxious after learning of the death of a classmate’s family because they are so dependent on their own parents and siblings. They may become fearful of losing someone in their own family.
The principles below are important to all classroom discussions about a death, whether facilitated by a counselor or a teacher:
- Tell the truth. Before telling the class, get as much information as possible from the family about how the person died. Ask the family’s permission to share information with the class and determine with the help of the parent(s) how the child would like the situation handled when they return to class. Tell the class what happened in terms of their own cognitive and developmental levels.
- Avoid giving unnecessary information that would distress or confuse the children. Protect them from pictures or media displays of horrible injuries or dead bodies.
- Allow for ventilation.
- Affirm all feelings.
- Set aside time for written expressions for the bereaved classmate.
- Plan for the return of the bereaved classmate.
- Look for trouble signs when the bereaved student returns.
Death of a Teacher or Classmate
The death of a teacher or student can be almost as devastating as the death of one’s own parent or sibling, and should be acknowledged as such.
- The teacher’s or classmate’s desk usually should not be removed.
- Gather as much factual information as possible regarding the death. When it is an unpublicized death, ask the family’s permission to share information with the class.
- Tell the affected class before telling the rest of the school.
- If some or all of the class chooses to attend the funeral, discuss what they will see and hear and how they might react.
- Tell the truth, allow for ventilation and affirm all expressions.
- After dealing with the death, allow for a break or recess.
- The next day, focus on the reactions of the children themselves.
- Discuss the idea of giving memory pictures or letters to the family of the deceased teacher or child.
- Later, talk about a more permanent memorial for the deceased teacher or classmate.
- Watch for trouble signs among the children.
- Death at School: A guide for teachers, school staff, counselors and administrators.