Death & Grief

  • Children and adolescents experience many types of losses in their lives—from the ordinary, such as the death of a pet—to the catastrophic, such as the recent tornadoes that have ravaged cities in parts of Alabama.

    Because no loss is unimportant, teachers, parents, as well as other trusted adults, must be able to recognize typical experience of loss, understand its impact, and respond with support and care.

    Children and adolescents should be comforted in knowing that grief is a healthy response to the loss of a significant person, place, or thing, and it encompasses a broad range of emotions and behaviors. These emotions can be intense, difficult, and often times overwhelming. Therefore, it is paramount to help children understand that what they feel is normal, that they are not strange, weird, or “going crazy.”

    Likewise, the school itself has an important role to play in helping both students and faculty members adjust to the death of one of the members of their “school family.” In order to effectively do so, schools may need to seek the assistance of additional counselors, social workers, youth pastors, and other outside agencies to provide support after a school crisis. These persons should be available to talk with students, as well as faculty and staff members, in both group and individual settings.

     A school’s developed response plan in the event of a death in the school community should specify the following: how notification of death is handled, who is notified of the death, how people are reached, and what is said. Typically, this includes the following steps: notifying the Prevention and Support Services Coordinator of a crisis situation so that a school crisis team can be assembled.

    • Verify the information. Check with the family, local authorities (e.g. the police or coroner), or other authoritative sources.
    • Determine what information is to be disclosed. The family may express wishes on this matter. Find out what information has been publicly released through the press or local authorities.
    • Notify teachers and other staff. An emergency meeting (if possible) should be scheduled before school begins. Teachers are informed of the death and given guidelines for notifying students and offering support.
    • Notify students. Face-to-face notification by familiar staff in small, naturally occurring group settings is recommended. Homeroom or in another class (depending on when the school learns of the death) is often a good option. It is best to avoid delivering such information in large assemblies or over the public address system. Students should all hear the same information (e.g., from a prepared, written statement). They should also be given information about support resources and offered opportunities to talk about their responses to the news. This might occur within a class discussion and by referral to a support room where additional counselors are available. Options should be made available as soon as students hear the announcement.  
    • Notify other schools as appropriate. This might include feeder schools, where the decreased was known by teachers or younger students, or schools attended by siblings of the deceased. In smaller communities, it may be appropriate to notify all schools.

     Following these steps gives schools a better opportunity to ensure that students learn of the death in an appropriate setting—that is, with a familiar teacher who has been prepared and is ready to make the announcement. Students can then be connected to support services more easily and effectively.