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Ask Dr. Lynch: Dealing with a Parent’s Death

EducationWorld Q&A columnist Dr. Matthew Lynch is an associate professor of education at Langston University. Dr. Lynch provides expert advice on everything from classroom management to differentiated instruction. Read all of his columns here, and be sure to submit your own question.

This week, Sarah Caron, Education World's Social Media Editor, asks:

When a student’s parent dies, it impacts the whole school community. How do you recommend schools handle the death with respect to the student whose parent has died, the teachers and students who are impacted, and the community at large?

ANSWER:

Sarah, thank you for submitting your question and also for all that you do for the Education World Community. You are correct; a parent’s death does have ramifications for the entire school community.

The loss of a parent is a devastating event for children, no matter the age. Children derive their sense of security from their parents, so the death of a parent can make them feel vulnerable and afraid. A child’s reaction to the death depends on his/her level of maturity and resilience. Regardless of how well children take it, they will need the love and support of those closest to them in order to make it through the grieving process. The school community can help by conveying how much they care for the student and feel empathy for their loss. 

Dr. Matthew Lynch

Children must be allowed to grieve on their own timetable without feeling rushed. At the same time, you don't want them to fall into a pit of despair and pity, so of course the school counselor’s or psychologist’sservices should be offered. Young people need access to these services both immediately after the death and for a period of time after that. With the support of the school community and their family, most of the children who lose parents go on to lead healthy, productive lives.

Regarding teachers, students, and the community at large, immediately after the death they will be searching for answers and information. Schools can help them by serving as a key disseminator of information. This is very important to the process, because we all know that misinformation can sometimes run rampant in situations such as these.

Everyone will not be affected by the parent’s death in the same way, but nonetheless, the death must be acknowledged by the school community. Hopefully, your school already has an emergency team that steps in when a crisis like this arises. In the hours or days immediately after the death, your school may not have a lot of details about how the student's parent died. The team should, however, disseminate whatever information it has.

Make sure that you inform your staff, faculty and administrators as soon as possible. Why? Because in addition to the school itself, these are the people who will be inundated with questions from students, parents and community members. If they are out of the loop and are unable to provide these sectors with viable information, your school could end up looking unprofessional and uninformed. Use every viable communication medium that you can think of to accomplish this goal, even if the school is on break.

Also, the staff should be briefed on the appropriate way to address the situation in their individual classrooms, and how to recognize signs that the death is affecting students negatively. Students can be affected regardless of whether they knew or were related to the deceased parent. This may lead to anxiety or sadness, especially when children realize that everyone is human, even parents. Some students may become overly preoccupied with death and the possibility that their parents could meet the same fate. Remember, students who are having a difficult time dealing with the situation should be referred to either the school counselor or psychologist.

It is not a good idea for us to believe that we are protecting students by withholding information. Like adults, students want to be told the truth. If they don't get the truth from the adults around them, they tend to try to put the pieces to the puzzle together as best they can, which can quickly turn into myths and misconceptions. Even if you don't know the whole truth, tell them the factual information that you possess concerning the parent's death.

It is best to prepare a written statement to inform the entire student body about the death. Teachers can read the statement in their classrooms. The worst thing that you can do is deliver the news over a PA system, because this method fails to express the true gravity of the situation. After the news is announced, students should be allowed to freely express their feelings and ask questions. Also, teachers can use this situation as a springboard to talk about death and dying.

It is also important to remember that parents are also a part of the equation. As soon as possible, preferably via a letter home or a personal phone call, parents should be informed of the death and also of the information that has been shared with their children. It is also important to prepare in advance a draft letter that can be used in such instances. Parents will want to know the specifics surrounding the death, as well as strategies that they can use to talk to their children about the situation.

As I established earlier, a parent's death has ramifications for the whole school community. I have provided you with information that your school can use to handle a parent’s death with respect to the student whose parent has died, the teachers and students who are impacted and the community at large. At the end of the day, the golden rule in this type of situation is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, in your time of bereavement.”

Related resource

When Tragedy Strikes: What Schools Should Do

 

About Dr. Lynch

Dr. Matthew Lynch is a Chair and Associate Professor of Education at Langston University and a blogger for the Huffington Post. Dr. Lynch also is the author of the newly released book It’s Time for a Change: School Reform for the Next Decade and A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories. Please visit his Web site for more information.

If you have a question for “Ask Dr. Lynch,” submit it here. Topics can be anything education-related, from classroom management to differentiated instruction.

 

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