The Parent-Teacher-Child Connection: What to do when a student dies

Sunday, December 18, 2011

What to do when a student dies

Unfortunately, if you've taught long enough, you've encountered the situation when you must return to class the day after a student has died, whether that child was in your class or in a school somewhere else.  For those of you in this sad position, I offer you a synoposis of advice I found around the web:

When the student who has died was in your class or one of your classes this year, it will be a very emotional and difficult time for you and your students. The first days that you come back to class will be very different and emotionally charged. Here are some tips and ideas for you and your students.
* Share your emotions and memories. Make sure that you are the first one to speak in the beginning of the bell that first day back, and always make sure that you are sharing what you are going through with your students. You should be modeling what effective grief looks like.

* Have a new box of soft tissues available.  School-issue boxes aren't very comforting. 
* Sometimes, teachers want to be the "pillar of strength" for their students and think that it will be best to stay strong, not share their feelings or allow themselves to cry in front of the students. It is hard to be emotionally vulnerable in front of your students, but if they do not see you grieving, they will not think it is okay for them to grieve. Sharing what you are thinking and the emotions you are feeling is one of the most important actions that you need to take in those first days back at school.
* Allow the students to write a note or create a memory board.  This will provide closure.  Memory board instructions:
  1. Have long white paper spread out in a hallway or in your classroom
  2. Have colored markers spread out along the paper.
  3. Explain that our memories are important to hold on to after our classmate and friend has died and sometimes it makes you feel better to make a physical representation of those memories.
  4. Allow each student to decorate the paper in any way they want. They can draw pictures, write memories, write a letter to the student that died, or just sign his or her name. Anything appropriate can go on the paper.
  5. When the students are done, ask them what they want to do with the paper. Should it be hung up somewhere in the class? Should it be given to the family? The choice is theirs.
* Go to the funeral and encourage your students to do the same. Every student and teacher should have the opportunity to go to the funeral. It is very important for you, as the student's teacher, to go to the service. It will mean a lot to the family and your surviving students. The opportunity to go to the funeral should also be extended to your class.
* Send home any of the student's work you still have in your graded pile.  Make sure the paper you sends is memorable for some reason and put a personal note at the top.

*Try to resume normal classroom procedure as soon as possible, even on that first day.  The subject matter will help you and your students to go beyond your grieving and into the thoughts about your subject matter.

* You also have the unpleasant task of what to do with that student's desk. If you are in a grade school where the child is in the same desk all day, you might make a simple sign or collage for the desk. If you are in a middle school or high school where students switch classes every bell, you are going to want to discuss with your students if there is anything special they want to do with that desk. Also be aware that the first time you switch seating arrangements will be difficult for some students.

* Never judge a student's grieving process. One of the principles of grief is that every person grieves differently and for a different length of time. As long as your student is grieving in a safe way, the way they're grieving is okay. Some students will never cry and some will not be able to stop crying.  If a student is out of control, send him or her to the guidance office where there will likely be an army of counselors from other schools to help with your students.

* Take care of yourself. Make sure you are talking to someone about what you are feeling and how this death is affecting you. As a teacher, you may want to just focus on your students and how they are doing, but you must take time for yourself. If you find a time when you just cannot teach, go to an administrator and explain how you are feeling; tell them how you are being affected and just need an hour break. They should understand, because everyone will be in the same boat.

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