Types of Death: Reactions and How to Respond
Each death presents a unique set of circumstances for the school family to process, respond to and begin the steps of grieving. The type of death will be one of many factors that will affect how one progresses through the process of grief. The leadership of a school can draw the school community together to guide the process and provide comfort and support to the bereaved.
One of the more common for a teacher to pass away is as the result of a terminal illness. For example, cancer is one of many health issues that can touch the life of anyone, including a teacher. Sometimes the teacher has been involved in an on-going battle to treat the disease. Though it does not lessen the pain, the school community may understand that death is a possible outcome of health issues and actually begin to cope with the possibility of death long before it actually occurs.
Occasionally the life of a teacher is lost through a tragic accident. Automobile wrecks, accidents at home, or mistakes made can result in an accidental death. In addition to grieving the loss of a significant individual and the uncertainty and fear of the impending changes, the sudden nature of the death can actually cause additional trauma and stress for the grieving community. Guiding the school family through a complex grief can require special skills and patience.
A teacher may have life claimed by an act of nature. Disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, or tornados can affect many aspects of a local community. Tragedies where a death occurs because of nature create unique grieving experiences. In addition to the common emotions connected with loss, the survivors often wrestle with guilt, insecurity and uncertainty.
Finally, teachers can be the victim of an act of violence. Whether in the community or on the school campus, the loss of a teacher through a purposeful act causes the school family to struggle with the loss of safety and security in addition to grieving the loss of a mentor, colleague and friend. Counselors are often brought into the school to help individuals deal with all of the complex feelings associated with such a loss.
Timing of the Death Can Alter the Response
The time of year that a death occurs can also affect the grieving process of the school and its supporters. While the circumstances surrounding any death are unique, the specific nature of the school calendar makes the timing of the death a factor in how the school family will grieve.
If the teacher’s death occurs on school property, while school is in session, a special set of conditions will affect the way the school mourns. Of all of the times that a death of a teacher can occur, this death is the most challenging because it requires an urgent and well-calculated response. Schools may want a leadership team to respond to such tragedies. Many schools form these special teams in the first days of the school year. A well-planned and well-worded policy to provide the boundaries under which the detailed responsibilities and structure for communication and response to tragedy can take place may provide guidance and direction during the time of stress.
When the teacher’s death occurs off the school property, but while school is in session, there is a little more time for the administration to think and respond to the death. Sometimes the addition of 24 or 36 hours can make the difference in the quality and effectiveness of the response. An emergency policy can outline the procedures and responsibilities ahead of time which can prove beneficial for the leaders during the times of stress.
The death of a teacher can take place during a vacation time when the school is not in session. Under these conditions, it would be common for the collective grieving process of the school to take place weeks after the funeral has taken place. The amount of time that has passed will affect how the schools need to respond to the death and the kind of support and counsel it will need to provide.
Administration: How to Respond to Loss of Teacher and Crisis Situations
The response of the administration to the loss of a teacher can set the tone for the reaction of other faculty, the students and the community at large. The principal or other administrator will play a key role in the communication of information about the circumstances of the death and the planned response of the school staff. The leadership of the school may want to prepare a written statement for release to the public that will assure the right words and emotions are conveyed to honor the loss.
Organizing the Response: Preparing the Staff
A meeting of the staff and teachers as soon as possible will help ease the remaining teachers’ minds about procedures following the death. The administrator can stress the need for routine and structure for the school day. At the same time, grieving students may require additional time and attention, so flexibility is imperative.
The administrator may want to open the meeting up to comments and questions from the teachers and staff. These moments can allow the teacher to share feelings and concerns, as well as to offer guidance to students for handling the loss and coping with the emotions and stress. Such structure will also likely help the personal grieving that the teacher may be experiencing.
Expressing Condolences: What to Send and How to Memorialize
Another task that the administrator may be responsible for is the official response and presence that the school will have at the ceremonies honoring the deceased. Media outlets may need a prepared statement or a spokesperson for questions. Depending on the culture and traditions, an administrative presence at the visitation or funeral can be a positive means of supporting the family. Sending an appropriate gift, like flowers or a basket, on behalf of the school community may be an appropriate statement of condolence.
Some schools will choose to have a memorial service for the teacher at a later time on the school grounds. Pictures and memorabilia can be displayed to capture and honor the work and legacy of the deceased. Former colleagues and students, as well as representatives from the current teaching year, can be invited to share tributes and eulogies for the teacher. The service may be presented during the school day, or can be offered in an evening and open to the public.
Often the administrator will give thought to students who would be at high-risk for an intense reaction to the news of the death of a teacher. Counselors from the community may be brought into provide additional resources and support. Thought may be given to a long-term substitute teacher so that the class does not have additional stress and continued change. Additional substitutes may be called in to provide a stronger adult presence and to help other adults with leadership, guidance and counsel.
Teachers: How to Express Condolences for Colleagues
The depth of the relationship and bonding between colleagues can be very strong, depending upon the length of time shared, the closeness of teaching assignments and a variety of other personality characteristics. Colleagues will want to express condolences in meaningful ways to honor and support the family of the deceased. Showing respect for the deceased faculty member will also be a way to show support for the school and its supporters.
Common etiquette for expressing condolences in any work environment will also apply to school settings. Though the methods of expressing sympathy may reflect the depth of the relationship, any message of condolence to the family from anyone who worked with the deceased will be appreciated by the family.
Depending on the culture and traditions, personal visits to the funeral home or memorial services will speak a message of honor and respect for the deceased to the family. Hand written notes of condolence or personal words at the bottom of a sympathy card or a gift like a fruit basket or flowers are tangible and meaningful ways to show concern.
Some teachers may offer class time for students to share memories or to express personal grief for the loss of the teacher. A teacher may feel led to write a personal tribute which could then be printed in the school newspaper or posted on bulletin boards, social media sites or the school’s website. Longer lasting expressions of condolence could include donations to the school or a favorite charity of the deceased as a tribute.
Students: How to Express Condolences for a Teacher
While most students of any age will be impacted by the loss of a teacher, the type of expression of condolence and intensity of the grief will be affected not only by the depth and duration of the relationship, but also the age and circumstance of the student.
Early childhood and elementary age children will depend upon their parents for the management and expression of their grief. Several days of spending extra time with the child will assure them that the other significant adults in their lives will be present for them. In an age appropriate manner, help them understand what has happened.
As much as possible, the parent may want to keep the routine of the child’s day structured and consistent. The normal routine will provide comfort and reassurance to most children. Offer positive and encouraging statements to the student about the school’s plans for the future.
The response of the younger student to the death of the teacher should be guided by the parents. Younger children may not be ready to attend a visitation or funeral. The parents would be the best to know the personality of the child. Concrete ways that even a younger child can participate in the condolence and grieving process could include helping to pick out a gift or signing a name on a sympathy card.
An adolescent student will need guidance from the parent but will want to express condolences and grieve in a more personal way. The emotions they feel for the loss of the teacher may be intense. They may feel depressed or anxious not only about the loss but how it may affect their future. The teen may become focused on the loss. This often results in the student withdrawing, becoming more irritable, or showing a decline in school work.
A teen may want to attend the visitation or funeral with other classmates. Some will want to make their own expression of sympathy through a card, writing or music. Students may plan a memorial service for the teacher within the school setting. Leaders can encourage their expressions of condolence, the discussion of their feelings and can offer gentle guidance in a safe environment.
How to Express Condolences for a Former Teacher
When a teacher passes away, current and former students may attend the visitation or the funeral. Those who cannot attend these services often want to send a sympathy note to the family members.
Whether speaking to the family in person or in a note, here are some guidelines to remember:
- Give a brief introduction and a time frame in which you knew the deceased. “I was a student of Mrs. Smith in the early 80’s at Pinewood Elementary.” This will help the family member gain a perspective upon your relationship.
- Briefly recount the impact that the deceased had upon your life. “Mrs. Smith was one of the best teachers that I ever had in any school. She made all of her students feel equally loved and cared for.” “Mrs. Smith taught me so much about the importance of communication.”
- Recall a specific incident that shares a part of the personality of the deceased. “I remember her quick wit and sense of humor. One morning she was called to the office, and all of the boys in the class turned every desk and chair around and faced the wrong way. She came in and acted as if nothing was wrong and taught the rest of the morning backwards.”
- Close with a clear statement of sympathy. “My deepest sympathy to you and your family. I truly feel blessed and honored that Mrs. Smith was a part of my life.”