When Someone from the School Community Dies
A death of someone within the school community whether that is a pupil, teacher or other significant member of the community can be a really difficult thing to contemplate. However it is helpful for your school to have a policy in place about what you would do in this situation before it happens. Hopefully you will never need to use it, but unfortunately experience tells us that you probably will. Here are some ideas and suggestions that might be useful to consider when thinking about breaking the news, remembering and supporting you as staff so that you can support your pupils.
Breaking the News
When a school experiences the death of a pupil or a member of staff it may be helpful to use a gathering such as an assembly or tutor group time to make everyone aware of what has happened.
In some cases there may already have been reports in the local media about the death. Friends of the pupil may have shared their version of events or heard conflicting stories about what has happened. The assembly can be used as a time to acknowledge that there are reports going around but that this assembly hopefully will contain as much factual information as is known.
It might be appropriate to send a letter to parents so that they have the same information and know what the school’s plan is and what support is being offered.
Time to reflect
It may feel more appropriate to talk to the tutor group most affected, separately. It can also be a time to let everyone know if there are any arrangements to remember the person within the school such as a memory book to write in. There may be different arrangements after the assembly has finished which the pupils will need to be informed of i.e. there may be time allowed for pupils to meet in their tutor groups to reflect and discuss.
For close friends of the pupil who has died it may be more useful for them to be told as a small separate group. Here there is more time and it can feel more comfortable to share and express feelings. The group may have their own ideas for a fitting memorial. It can be helpful to acknowledge that maybe not everyone may have got on with the person who has died and so they may feel differently about what has happened.
Choosing who to talk with
For adolescents it may be the case that they have already established a supportive network of friends. Often children and young people welcome the opportunity to choose which adults they would feel comfortable talking to. For some this may be their class teacher, meal time assistant or support worker. For those pupils who have already experienced bereavement, this recent event may open up past grief and so extra support may need to be talked about.
Friends may like to make a card to send to the family to let them know that they are thinking about them. The school may put together a special book with a collection of memories or messages in, a copy of which can be given to the family.
A memorial could be created in school which embodies the person in some way for example a bench in a favourite spot, a piece of art work to mark their artistic talent, a concert to remember their musical or theatrical abilities or a trophy presented in their name for their love of sport. The family may like to be involved or at least be invited to attend the presentation.
Clearing away the person’s desk or tray can be difficult to get right for everyone. It may be helpful to talk with those closest to the person to decide when and how this should be done.
Support for Staff
At a time when something sad and difficult has happened it can be more helpful for pupils to be offered time to talk by those who are known to them already.
Young people have also told us that they have found it more beneficial to choose who and when they wanted to talk rather than being sent to see a stranger. Of course staff have their own experiences of bereavement too so it is important to check out who feels able to offer support to others. The staff also need to be made aware of what help is available to them should they decide that they need it whether it is guidance about how to help others or for their own therapeutic needs.
Often adults can be worried about being upset in front of children and young people in case it makes them more upset. When someone dies it is a very sad time for all and crying is an appropriate way of showing this. It also shows that even though you are a grown up, you do care.
Returning to School
School can offer security and familiarity for children and young people when someone special to them has died.
Contact with the family
The family of the bereaved pupil may contact school directly soon after someone has died. Alternatively one of the school staff could make the first contact to let the family know that they are being thought about.
Information about what has happened does need to be given to the staff who need to know. This needs to be agreed with the family.
Although it can be hard for pupils to feel like facing school again, it can offer a sense of security, routine and normality at a time when these things feel lost.
Giving Choice and Control
At a time when something out of control has happened it is important to give the child or young person a sense of control about returning to school. The pupil can be given the choice about letting peers know why they have been absent and the facts about what has happened. The pupil may choose to do this in person, together with a trusted teacher or for the teacher to do it before they return. It may also be important that peers get a clear, factual account of the situation particularly if the death has been publicised or is known about in the wider community as this could leave the story open to rumours.
If the class is informed of the pupil’s absence you could encourage them to write letters or make cards to send home. If the pupil has some time off you can keep them informed about what is happening in school.
Returning to School
Sometimes walking in the doors for the first time can be scary so the child or young person could identify one or two friends to meet them and walk in together. Maybe they would like to come in after the playground is empty to avoid facing the crowds when they are already feeling anxious. Some pupils find it beneficial to come back for part of the day and build up to full time schooling.