Your Important Role in Helping Students Cope with a Death
Perhaps you feel ill-prepared and somewhat overwhelmed at the prospect of helping your students cope with a death. If so, you’re not alone. Understand that the most important qualities for assisting a grieving student are ones that you already have: good listening skills and the ability to understand where your students are coming from.
The following steps help ensure that a grieving student is comfortable with your approach to providing support and will help you prepare the class to help the grieving student feel comfortable and supported.
- Ask the student what she wants the class to know about the death, funeral arrangements, etc.
- If possible call the family prior to the child’s return so that you can provide support, and let them know you’re thinking of them.
- Talk to your class about how grief affects people and encourage them to share how they feel.
- You may discuss what other types of losses or deaths the students in your class have experienced, and what helped them cope. It is important to provide a safe environment for your students to talk about how they’re feeling and can ask questions.
- Discuss how difficult it may be for their classmate to return to school, and how they may be of help.
- You can ask your class for ideas about how they would like others to treat them if they were returning to school after a death, pointing out differences in preference. Some students want to be left alone; others want the circumstances discussed freely.
- Provide a way for your class to reach out to the grieving classmate and their family.
- One way for students to reach out is by sending cards or pictures to the child and family, letting them know the class is thinking of them.
- Provide flexibility and support to your grieving student upon his or her return to class.
- Recognize that your student will have difficulty concentrating and focusing on school work. Allow the bereaved student to leave the class when she is needing quiet or alone time. Make sure that the student has a person available to talk with, such as the school counselor.
12 Steps You Can Take to Help
- Tell the truth, use accurate words such as died, killed, suicide.
- Listen without judgment.
- Say something that acknowledges you care and know about the death, like “I’m sorry about your mom’s death, and I would like to help in any way I can.” Some kids say they don’t like people to say they’re sorry because it’s not their fault.
- Talk about the person who died, using their name and sharing memories.
- Provide structure and routine with flexibility as needed.
- Seize those special moments that may arise in class to teach about grief.
- Know that you can’t take away the pain, fear, aloneness or feeling of being different. Understand your role is not to get rid of those feelings, but to provide a safe atmosphere where they can be expressed.
- Provide a structured, safe environment for grief.
- Comprehend that the student’s life has changed forever, and that it will never be the same.
- Allow for grief, sorrow, anger, other feelings.
- Provide a support group in the school for grieving students.
- With young children, give concrete examples about death. For example, you can say that when a person dies they don’t have to go to the bathroom; they don’t get cold or hungry; they don’t sleep or think; they don’t get scared, etc. Help students understand that a dead body does not do what a live body does.
* Content developed by The Dougy Center’s Guide to Helping the Grieving Student and compiled from the experiences of children, parents and school staff.
The Alcove Center for Grieving Children and Families is now able to offer school inservices to all school personnel. Inservices are 1.50 hours or 3.0 hours.
Please call us at 609-484-1133 for more information, or to schedule an inservice. Our state provider number is #6862, issued by the New Jersey Department of Education and Professional Development.