Bereavement may be something that we have experienced in our personal lives, but as a teacher you may also be presented with a situation where you are required to cope with either the death of a pupil/teacher at your school, or a death in the family of a pupil.
Any bereavement is difficult, but it can be especially difficult if you are coping with your own feelings of sadness and loss as well as those of your pupils/colleagues.
In some circumstances, a teacher is the person a bereaved child or young person is most likely to turn to when they need to talk about their bereavement. This can prove particularly daunting if you haven’t had any experience of supporting a bereaved child or young person previously.
A pupil’s loss a member of his or her family
Bereavement is an overwhelmingly sad and difficult time for anyone but it can be particularly difficult for a child or young adult.
Communication with the bereaved child or young person’s family whilst supporting them is essential. The family or caregiver of the bereaved child or young person will have their own belief systems and thoughts on how the bereavement should be dealt with, their wishes must be respected.
It’s always a good idea to speak to the pupil, in private, to say briefly how sorry you are. While this may be painful for you and your pupil, it is better than having him/her think that you don’t know or care about his/her loss. Allow the bereaved child or young person to share their thoughts, feelings and concerns with you and provide support in a non judgemental way. Allow the bereaved child or young person to set the pace of any conversations pertaining to the death and ensure that you have set aside adequate time to facilitate such discussions so that you will not be called away whilst the child or young person is sharing.
You may be required to tell the rest of your class that the pupil has been bereaved and ask them to treat the child sympathetically. Ensure you have the permission of the parent/care giver and child before you do this. Informing class mates may make him/her uncomfortable if you do so while he/she is present, so you may prefer to send him/her on an errand before you address the rest of the class. How you inform your pupils about a death depends on their age; older pupils may realise the enormity of what has happened and may be more distressed. Try and keep the atmosphere calm and be clear in your language, avoiding confusing euphemisms such as ‘passed away’.
Each young person will differ in exactly how they respond to the experience, and in what they need from you as their teacher, as they go through their bereavement. It can be an evolving process, happening over extended periods of time, and so you may see many shifts; sometimes dramatic and sometimes subtle.
Some pupils may struggle to express their emotional distress to you. School might become the one place in their lives they feel is untouched by the death and they ‘cope’ remarkably well. You might not notice very much difference in performance, attitude or behaviour. For others, the effects may clearly manifest in behavioural and attitudinal changes.
Remember that if the pupil loses a member of the family in the months leading up to his/her exams this will need to be borne in mind before their final grade is decided and appropriate persons notified of the extenuating circumstances.
Your school may have access to a school counsellor or bereavement counsellor for pupils – ask your colleagues or your head teacher if you feel your student requires professional support.
If you are going to be offering regular support to the bereaved child or young person when they return to school it is important that you receive support from the head of your department or similar colleague. Supporting a bereaved child or young person can be emotionally challenging and therefore you must safeguard your own emotional well being if you are to be able to support the bereaved child or young person efficiently. Remember your professionalism and put in place appropriate boundaries.
Death of a pupil or member of staff in your school
A death in the school might be of a pupil, a teacher or other staff member. Every circumstance will be different but you need to ensure you are able to manage the situation effectively.
You will need to manage the impact of the death in the school as sensitively as possible whilst enabling the life of the school to continue as normal. You may also be required to contain emotion while struggling to manage your own feelings.
You may want to consider:
- How are you as a staff? (What thoughts and feelings do people want to share? Who is likely to be most vulnerable at this time?)
- Who is affected? (How widely known was the person in the school? What was the nature of the death and how public is this knowledge?)
- Student reactions (What are student reactions at present? What do we know about reactions to expect in students?)
- Communication and support (What mechanisms for communication are in place to be drawn on? What support systems can be called on internally/externally?)
- Sources of information (What do we have to hand already? What else might we get hold of?
In the days afterwards, the school may want to make a room available where pupils can go during the school day if they need to grieve in private (Sometimes a bereavement counselor may be present).
Pupils may also wish to write a letter of condolence to the deceased family – this can be a comfort both to the family and the pupils.
Other suitable options may include a book of remembrance, planting a tree in the school grounds in the deceased person’s memory.
To give you more insights on bereavement, below are two websites you can take a look at: