Loss of a Student

The impact of the student’s death upon administrators, faculty, students and the school community will hinge on many factors, including the relationship shared with the student, the length of time of the relationship, the circumstances of the student’s death, and the age of the students involved. Responding to the loss of a student of any age creates unique opportunities for the school community. School personnel will play a key role in helping students and others process through the stages of grief in a school setting.

Type of Death

Death can take a student in a variety of ways, each presenting unique circumstances and responses by the surviving school community. The type of death is one of several factors which will affect how one progresses through the stages of grief. The response of the leadership of the school to guide the grieving process will take into account the type of death and will provide appropriate support to the bereaved.

Some students die as a result of a long-term illness. Congenital heart disease, cancers or other health issues can be an ongoing battle for a child that may end the child’s life. Though it does not lessen the pain, the school community may understand that death is a possible outcome of the health issues and actually begin to cope long before the death.

Students can lose their lives through a tragic accident. Automobile accidents, drowning, or injuries may result in the death of a child. In addition to grieving the loss, the sudden nature of the loss and the circumstances of the death can create additional trauma for the grieving community. Questions and emotions from the remaining students can be intense. Guiding a student through this grief can be challenging and require thoughtful consideration.

Students may be affected by an act of nature which claims their life. Large scale disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes can cause many fatalities in a community. Local acts of nature like a tornado or severe thunderstorm can affect a neighborhood or home. Tragedies like these create unique grieving experiences, including feelings of guilt and questions of why one individual is spared and another taken.

Students can also be the victim of a purposeful act of violence. Here the school community not only grieves the loss of an individual, it also struggles with a loss of safety and security. In addition to providing support for the loss, the leadership of the school will want to take steps to rebuild trust and confidence. Counsel may need to be provided not only for the loss of an individual life, but also for the fear involved in a loss of security.

In some instances, students, teachers and administrators may encounter the death of a student by suicide. The self-inflicted measure of taking ones very own life may create a unique set of questions and concerns. Similar to the death of any individual through a tragic and sudden event there may be disbelief, shock and other emotions displayed as the grieving process begins to take place. In addition to ordinary emotions of grief and disbelief, students and teachers may begin to ask questions including, “Could this have been prevented?” and “Were there signs of depression?” The circumstances surrounding suicide are extremely challenging and sensitive for anyone involved.

Timing of the Death

When a death occurs can also affect the grieving process of the school community. Although every death is unique, there are some broad categories under which the death of a student may take place. Each loss has its own special conditions and each individual will have special ways of coping with the loss.

The death of the student can take place on school property, while school is in session. Of all of the types of deaths of a student that are possible, this death requires an urgent response that is both immediate and calculated. Schools may want a team of leaders selected ahead of time to respond to such tragedies. A well-crafted policy to provide structure and guidance to the response of adult leadership, specific detailed responsibilities, and the structure for communication and the dissemination of information can be helpful during the time of stress and urgency.

The death of the student can take place off of school property, while school is in session. While this type of death allows for a little more time in the required response, it often demands action in less than twenty-four hours. Again a policy outlining procedures and responsibilities that has been decided upon in advance can be helpful for the leaders of the school during the challenging and stressful time.

The death of the student can occur while school is not in session. If the death occurs on a weekend or during a week’s vacation, the collective grieving process for the community will begin when school resumes, which could be after the funeral has taken place. If the death occurs during the summer, several weeks can actually provide a buffer for the grief. The amount of time that has passed will alter how the school needs to respond and the kind of support and counsel it will need to provide.

Administration: How to Respond to the Loss of a Student

The response of the administration and staff to the loss of a student may set the tone and stage for the reactions of the faculty, students and school community. An administrator, most often the principal, will play a key role in the communication of information about the circumstances of the death and the planned response of the school team. Leaders may find that a well-thought out presentation, perhaps even a written statement, will assure that just the right words are used to convey the loss.

The administrator will share information to teachers about what needs to be discussed and when. Teachers who worked with the student on a regular basis may need additional support from the staff to help process the death. The administrator can stress the need for routine and structure to the school day, allowing for the sensitivity to the needs of the students and the flexibility to provide appropriate responses.

The administrator may want to allow structured time for the teachers and staff to respond to the death. A meeting prior to the school day can allow teachers to share their own feelings and offer guidance for handling the loss and coping with the death in front of the students. Such structure will also aid in the personal process of grieving that the teacher may experience.

Another task that the administrator often accepts is the official response that the school will have publically to the death. Statements of support and grief may be communicated to newspapers, radio or television outlets. Depending on culture and tradition, an administrative presence at visitations or funerals can be a 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 student at a later time on the school campus.

Often an administrator will give thought to students who would be at high-risk for an intense response to the death of the student. Counselors from the community may be brought in to provide support. Substitute teachers may be contacted to provide additional adults for leadership, guidance and counsel.

Teachers: How to Express Condolences for the Loss of a Student

Teachers play a front-line role by providing grieving students with a safe environment to experience the emotions of mourning and a trusted adult who will listen and guide them. The support provided by the teacher can influence the student not only through this immediate crisis, but can set the stage for a life time of processing tragedy and loss.

Creating a time where students can share their reactions and feelings about the death can be helpful to the grieving process. In an age-appropriate way, discussion can be guided to present other types of losses and deaths that students in the class have experienced. Opportunities and examples of what helped the student cope with the loss can be shared. Above all, the listening that the teacher does to the discussions reinforces that the student is in a safe place with an adult who cares and respects their feelings.

While it is true that all react to death differently, the teacher can assist the process by continuing to provide structure and limits. Even though the students are grieving, there are still rules that apply and tasks to be accomplished. Some assignments and tests may need to be temporarily postponed, but many daily routines can provide a sense of normalcy and comfort.

Teachers may find it helpful to remember that the class often functions as a group. Sharing grief is often one of those circumstances and a guided time of grieving together may benefit the entire class. Students can be exposed to the grieving process in an environment that is caring and supportive.

Rules of etiquette for funerals and mourning of an individual will most likely apply for the teachers of a school when the loss of a student occurs. Attendance at times of visitation and the funeral will be determined by the relationship that the teacher shared with the student and family. The presence of any teacher from the school will bring comfort and support to the grieving family.

Students: How to Express Condolences for the Loss of a Classmate or Other Student

How the students react to the death of another student will vary depending on age, relationship with the deceased student, familiarity with death, and circumstances involving the student’s death. The impact that the death has on students will vary, but can be intense. Each student will handle the death in a way appropriate to age.

Younger students may have a more difficult time understanding the death. They are likely to interpret things in a very literal way. They are likely to “miss the friend” and feel the loss in a concrete way. Many will feel a kind of guilt, but will not understand why. The response to the death should be guided by the parents. Younger children may not be ready to attend a visitation or funeral, but may express the condolences through a concrete way like helping pick out a gift or signing a name on a sympathy card.

Middle and high school students may feel intense emotions at the loss of a student. They may begin to experience feelings of depression or anxiety. Guilt and self-blame can be typical emotions felt by the teen. Impact can often be seen in an increase in illness, missing school and a decline in grades on school work. The teen may become focused on the loss, withdraw, or become more irritable.

Parents will provide some guidance in the expression of condolence at this age, but the adolescent often will want to take some ownership of the response. Teens may want to attend a visitation or funeral service. Some will want to make their own sympathy cards or plan a memorial service within the school setting. Leaders can encourage their expression of emotions, provide safe places for them to discuss their feelings, and offer guidance and support through the difficult time.