How to Handle the Death of a Student

It’s one of the hardest, saddest, and scariest moments of any educator’s career. Hearing the news that a student in your classroom has passed away is terrifying and soul crushing. I would know. I’ve been there. Twice.

The first time was only months into my very first year of teaching. I still remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. The second time was years later, after I had a lot more teaching experience under my belt, but it wasn’t any easier. Both deaths were sudden, and it goes without saying they were devastating.

How do you stand in front of a group of 17 year-olds and continue to act like teaching them grammar matters? Of course it does matter, but not that day. Not for me, and not for those kids.

How do you face these students and not have your eyes continually flicker back to that empty seat? What do you say the first time you open your mouth in the front of the room? How do you be vulnerable and show your emotions to your students, yet still be strong for them? How do you discuss the topic of death while reading about murder after murder in a Shakespearean play when death is no longer an abstract concept to your students?

A lot of these questions don’t have answers. The best way you can possibly navigate this situation as a teacher is to know your students, your relationship with them, and their relationship with each other. How you handle this with your first period class might be different than how you handle it with your second period. And how you handle this if you teach first grade will certainly be different than how you handle it if you teach high school. The Coalition for Grieving Students also offers many helpful resources, including tips on what to say and what not to say.

The best thing you can do is be there for your students, whatever that looks like for your situation. It’s also important that you take care of yourself and your colleagues. Never assume that anybody is okay; sometimes the people who seem to be handling things the best are actually hurting the most.

Following is a guide to navigating some of the hardest parts of the loss of a student.

Make Sure You Have The Facts Straight

Sometimes students have all the information before teachers do, and other times it’s up to the teacher to break the news to the students. Either way, do not say anything to your students unless you are sure you have the facts straight and you are authorized to give out the information you are going to give. The last thing you want to do during this time is spread rumors.

Call in the Experts

Hopefully, your school has made the guidance counselors available all day (and for many days after) to be there for students; they may have even called in some extra help. Absolutely encourage students to go talk to the guidance counselors whenever they need to, no questions asked.

You also might want to see if a guidance counselor can come to your classroom, especially if the student was in that particular class. Your school might have a crisis response team set up to help as well.

Don’t Assume Anything

Just because a student wasn’t particularly close with the student who passed away doesn’t mean this isn’t affecting them. Especially depending on how and why a student passed, this could really scare students. Kids tend to think they’re invincible and when they see one of their peers pass away and realize that they are not invincible, it can rock them to their core.

Keep a close eye on all your students and be prepared to offer them extra support or refer them to the guidance counselor if you notice any students really struggling.

With younger students, you should never assume that they understand what death is. With young children, you’re likely facing a group of kids who have a vast range of experience with death. Some may have already faced the death of a very close relative, some the death of a pet, and some no death at all. Some kids may have been told that the deceased have gone to sleep for a long time, and others might have a better understanding of what happens when people die. Try to keep all of this in mind when talking to students about what happened. Reading and discussing books about grief can be beneficial to these students.

What to do About the Seats

This one is tricky, and if your students are mature enough, it’s a good idea to let them help make the decision. Leaving the deceased student’s seat empty is hard because it’s a constant reminder that the student is gone.

Assigning new seats is hard because nobody wants to be the student who takes the seat of the student who passed. Re-arranging the desks is hard because it can feel like you’re trying to completely forget the student.

Both times I faced this in my classroom, I was teaching seniors and I let them cast a private vote on what to do with the seat, and both times the overwhelming majority chose the same thing: to keep seats the same, and to leave the deceased student’s seat empty.

Students felt it was a way to honor and remember them, and to not forget that they had been a part of our class. Giving my students the choice felt like the right thing to do; not involving them in the decision felt, to me, like I was trying to cover something up or gloss over it without addressing it.

If your students are younger or you don’t think they are mature enough to be part of this decision, you might need to make this decision yourself. In this case, be sure to explain your decision to your students.

What to Do in Class the First Day

This is highly dependent on the age and also the subject you teach. It also, again, depends on your relationship with the class and the overall class dynamic. If you have a close relationship with the class, you might just spend the whole class period talking to each other.

Sometimes students want to hear from you, but sometimes they want their voice to be heard too. It can be therapeutic for students if you just listen; let them express themselves. This can be a great opportunity for you to make note of students who might be struggling more than others.

It may be that the administration gives you a script of what to say or some do’s and dont’s and if they do, this can be really helpful. Make sure, though, that you are still connecting with your students and not detaching yourself by just reading directly off a script. Students are likely to realize that this doesn’t seem authentic.

Every year, my seniors and I read a really good book together called The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. Pausch is a professor who is dying of pancreatic cancer and throughout the book, he recounts stories from his life and imparts lessons and wisdom on the reader. The book becomes all the more real after students have experienced death.

One of the life lessons Randy teaches in the book is “When there’s an elephant in the room, introduce it.” When he delivered his last lecture on stage, he introduced the elephant right away: the fact that he had tumors and that he was dying of cancer.

There would be no point in dancing around the issue and trying to pretend it wasn’t there because everyone in the room knew the situation. By addressing it, things are less awkward and some of the tension is taken out of the room.

The same goes for addressing the death of the student in your classroom. It might be hard to bring it up and talk about it, but if you don’t, there’s a tension in the air that can make things even more difficult.

According to a report from The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, this is also a great time to model appropriate behavior to students; “– adult behavior that shows them how responsible adults react to loss and respond to a crisis. Adults may grieve, but they continue to act with consideration and maintain calm routines at school.”

When to Get Back to Normal

You absolutely need to address the death and allow students time to grieve, but there comes a time when you have to return to business as usual. Yes, there are things you need to teach and curriculum you need to get through, but this is important for your students’ well-being as well. They need consistency, stability, and routine, and getting right back to as normal as possible after a day or two is important.

Some students may miss school for a week or more, and that is okay. Do not penalize these students; give them grace and time to make up any work they missed.

If the funeral or memorial service is scheduled during school, allow students to attend without having to worry about making up work. Some things are more important than your geometry worksheet. There are many benefits to attending funerals and memorial services, including helping students feel affirmed in their feelings and supported by a like minded community.

If you’re missing a lot of students from class due to a memorial service, this could also be a great time to talk to the students who were not as close to the student who passed; the students who are still in your classroom instead of at the memorial service. Remember that the death can have a big impact on them even if they weren’t close to the student.

You should also be sure to keep a close eye on your students even once things have returned to normal. There are some populations of students that might have a tougher time adjusting and coping with the loss both short and long term.

These groups include:

  • Close friends of the student
  • Students who were on the same sports team or in the same club
  • Students in the same class, especially those who sat near the deceased student
  • Students who did not get along with the student who passed (they could feel regret, anger, confusion, etc.)
  • Students who recently suffered another loss

There Is No Perfect Answer

As teachers, we want our students to learn real life lessons, but no one hopes they have to learn this one so soon. When the death of a student happens, you cease to be just a teacher. You become a friend, a counselor, a role model, a mentor, and a shoulder to cry on.

The death of a student will affect every single student differently, and there is no perfect way to handle the situation. Show your students love, grace, and compassion as you help them navigate this difficult period in their lives.

It’s also helpful to give your students coping strategies and to help them understand that everybody grieves differently. The University of California at Berkeley offers some really helpful tips and strategies for students who are coping with death.

If you succeed in handling this situation well, you will be giving your students strategies they need to cope with difficult times for years to come.

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