Teachers Role (Secondary and Elementary)
Following the death of a student, those left behind grieve in a variety of ways. This brief handout is intended to provide a guide for your use in assisting the students in your classes through the next few days and weeks as they resolve their feelings related to this death.
Normal grief is generally characterized by progression from an initial state of shock and denial, to one of rage and anger, to one of disorganization and despair, and finally to a state of acceptance and hope.
In the event of a sudden death, many youngsters may arrive at school already "buzzing" with the news. Rumors will have already started before school convened, but there will also be many youngsters who arrive with no knowledge of the deceased student's death. Youngsters will be saying, "I just can't believe it!" "Not him/her. It can't be!" "This must be a joke."
Other youngsters will quickly move to being angry. They will want to blame anyone and everyone for the death - other friends, parents, police, teachers, the medical personnel, and finally, themselves.
Guilt will be a feeling many youngsters may experience and want to discuss. In the aftermath of an adolescent death, many youngsters will be going back and retracing their last encounter with the adolescent who has died. They add to their guilt by often blowing out of proportion small fights that may have occurred or minor disagreements they may have had. After their guilt period, they may feel that they are in some way responsible for the death.
For many of your students, this may be their first encounter with death. They will look to you for guidance and modeling. To share with the students your own feelings when you are told of the death--your shock, your sadness, your confusion-is valuable. To reminisce about your relationship with the deceased student, if you know him/her is important. Share with students what you will remember about him/her.
Let students know these feelings are normal. Reassure them that they are not responsible for what happened. Encourage the students to be supportive of one another and to escort any friend who is upset to a teacher or the guidance office. Reassure them that the adults in the building are available to help. Also, encourage the students to discuss their feelings with their parents.
The most important thing teachers can do is to allow some opportunity for students to express feelings related to the death. Help them through the grief process by acknowledging the pain and grief they are experiencing, by being a good, active listener, and by reassuring them that their feelings are normal and expected.
Specific Information for Elementary Teachers
The response of a young child to the death of a significant person may vary depending upon the personal, family, and social factors. The grieving process does not always have discernible stages as observed in adolescents or adults. Such factors as the closeness of the relationship, the time of preparation for the death, and the family's response to the death may influence the nature, duration, and severity of the grief response. After the loss of a loved one, the child may be reluctant to trust other adults for fear they too will die or go away. This confounds the teacher's role in supporting the student.
The variety of responses to death and often hide the child's true feelings. The child may behave as if nothing is really wrong, hoping that they can convince themselves that death is a reversible process and the deceased will return. Often the signs are physical or behavioral in nature, including: crying, clinging, and thumb sucking. Other signs of bodily distress might include: chronic worrying, lack of energy, and loss of appetite. The child may also demonstrate hostile reactions or there may be a looking to others or substituting that is designed to satisfy some physical or emotional need. There may be an idealizing of the individual during the initial response. Perhaps the most powerful response of young children to death is one of guilt. There may be concern that they have done something to cause the death or should have been more helpful while the person was alive.
The teacher can be very helpful to the young child by giving him/her accurate information in simple and understandable words. The information shared should be guided by the child's questions and should avoid the use of phrases such as "going on a long trip" or "going to sleep". By supporting the child's expressions of feeling in a caring manner, the teacher prepares the child for later grief events. If possible, it is helpful to young children to use such experiences as the loss of a pet to begin to acquire the skills necessary to get through the death of a person to whom they are acquainted.