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How to Handle Grieving Students

We know that grief is a difficult process for the person dealing with it directly, but it can also be hard on the person who is their support system. It can be even harder navigating what is or isn't your place in your students' lives as a teacher. It's important to remember that you create a working environment for students to succeed and a space for them to experience and grow through the wide range of human experiences. 

Most students, young and old, will, unfortunately, experience tragedy, and you may not always know how to deal with the situation. There is no one answer when comforting grieving students. But there are some guidelines you can follow to approach each situation properly. 

1. Reach Out

Reassure your students that you are there for them and provide an opportunity to talk or ask questions. Some students may not feel comfortable openly expressing themselves or may have difficulty vocalizing how they feel. Do not pressure these students to talk. Instead, encourage them to draw, write, or listen to music to connect with their feelings. 

One of the best things you, as a teacher or administrator, can do is provide options. 

Remember that when talking about death, you should use the words "death" and "dying" in conversation rather than euphemisms like "passed away" or "in a better place." This is important for younger students who may have trouble understanding the full scope of what death means. 

2. Ask Them What They Need From You

The needs of a bereaved student are likely to change daily. Check in and offer support in a way that the student feels comfortable receiving.

Your most beneficial support may be solely work-related. Help your student by providing extensions, extra one-on-one time, or creating a realistic plan to ensure they do not fall too far behind. Academic pressure adds to the overall stress during this time, and it is common for students to either hyper-fixate or abandon their schoolwork.

You can also normalize a student's experiences by telling them that their feelings are common. However, if they display worrying signs or behavior indicating they are at risk (e.g., self-harm, suicidal thoughts), refer immediately to the appropriate professionals. 

3. Talk to the Peers of the Bereaved Student

Have an open discussion with the class before the bereaved student returns to class. Provide as much information as is appropriate, but emphasize the importance of being empathetic and sensitive. You don't want to single a student out when they are grieving or draw attention to them. Returning to a familiar routine and consistent environment can help students regain a sense of normalcy. Try engaging students in activities they previously enjoyed.

4. Be Understanding and Tolerant of Different Reactions

Everyone reacts to grief differently depending on their developmental level, previous experiences, and cultural or religious beliefs. Some common reactions may include: 

  • a decreased ability to concentrate
  • increased sadness
  • decreased appetite
  • difficulty sleeping
  • social withdrawal. 

Someone experiencing grief may behave erratically or display anger and lash out at you or others. 

Be patient and understand that you can't always help. Instead, focus on being consistent. The best thing you can do is listen, acknowledge feelings, and be nonjudgmental.

5. Find a Peer Support Group for Bereaved Students

Try encouraging your student to connect with others that have/are going through a similar experience. It can be very isolating for students of all ages to experience an event that their peers have not, and they may find it hard to maintain their previous friendships. 

Remember that you may not know what is best for your student or have the kind of relationship that promotes support during their hard time, but you can look for and recommend alternative sources of support. 

Tips for When the Whole School is Affected by a Tragedy

If a student or teacher dies, or there is some other tragedy, here is how to approach the situation.

1. Send out a Letter and/or Direct Communication to all Parents

Present the announcement on school letterhead. This makes it official from the source. You should include only factual information.

  • Facts about the death to dispel rumors
  • How to talk to their children about the event
  • Illustrate the range of feelings and reactions that may occur throughout the grief process
  • Include indications for when a student may need mental health counseling
  • Provide the school's contact information if the parents have questions or believe their child may benefit from counseling
  • How to obtain community resources

2. Call a Class Meeting

If you are breaking the news to your class, make sure to share the fact. Do not hide information that people may circulate and distort later on. Express your own feelings openly and calmly. It's okay to express emotion. It may help other students express their grief and thoughts as well.

Do not rush or "get it over with" even when you feel emotional. Instead, allow for natural expressions of grief to take place in a safe environment.

3. Check in and Provide Relevant Updates

Make sure you provide opportunities for students to ask questions. Some students may be in shock and not want to talk about it straight away. Let them know that you are ready to listen whenever they want to talk.

Some students may have a hard time if they feel like everyone is "moving on" too quickly. You can decide as a class how to remember those who have died. Perhaps you want to put up photos and candles, say a prayer together, or engage in conversations about the departed. You can do a weekly ritual or set up a letterbox dedicated to writing letters to the deceased.

The Take-Away

Remember to check in with students who have experienced recent trauma, have a hard time processing, or have emotional problems. Never rush them or tell them how to feel. Just be the support system they need you to be.


Written by Jessica Holdsworth

Education World Contributor

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