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Helpful Information for School Administrators and Staff When a School Has Been Impacted by a Death
Informing Staff, Students and Parents About the Death
  • In the aftermath of a death, people want information and will look for it wherever they can find it. One of the most important and meaningful things you can do for your staff and students is to deliver accurate information about the death in a timely, sensitive manner.
  • The death of a staff member or students impacts the whole school community. While some students and staff may be more affected than others, the death needs to be acknowledged by the community at large. There are some deaths that do affect only a few students or few staff members who are acquainted with the person who died. Examples may be a part time staff member, a coach known to a small group of students and staff, a teacher’s friend or a student’s relative.
  • The Crisis Team in your school can determine which staff members and students need information about the death and how to present the information accurately and sensitively. It’s important to get information about a death to the school community in a timely manner. Even if you cannot provide all the information, tell people as much accurate information as you do know.

 Telling Staff

  • If a school staff member or student dies, inform all staff members as soon as possible. This includes administrators, support staff and teachers as well as custodial staff, kitchen staff and bus drivers. Staff can be told by a phone call to their home, a written memo or at an emergency staff meeting at the earliest possible time (before or after school depending on the notification). Crisis Response Team members will need a current updated phone tree with correct phone numbers. If the event happens over vacation, weekends or breaks, make every effort to let the staff know before they return to school. 
  • If the death affects a smaller number of staff, such as the death of a sibling of a student, you may choose to inform only teachers and staff who interact with that person on a regular basis. This can be challenging as the team may not know who did or didn’t know the person who died. If you don’t know, then tell the whole staff. That way no one feels left out. No one appreciates being the last one to find out or being left out of the loop in such a situation. Don’t forget to inform staff members who are on vacation, ill or absent. And don’t assume you know who cares.
  • It isn’t uncommon for some staff members to be resistant to addressing the loss in a public way. They may not want to talk about grief and may feel that students do not have to do so either. Sometimes this is because they have personal loss issues that they have not addressed or, it may be that they have incorrect information about what children need following a death. Your modeling of appropriate grief responses and leadership will be a valuable asset to your staff.

 If you need to tell a staff member that someone died in their family, make sure that someone in their family or a friend is present. Also find a private place to inform them. Remember to make a plan with the staff member in regards to a substitute. 

Telling Students

As adults, we often mistakenly believe we can protect children by withholding information from them. The reality is that children and teens need and want the truth as much as adults do. When they don’t get it from the adults around them, they will discuss and attempt to piece together the information among themselves, in the bathroom, on the playground, on the bus or in the halls. Often information received in these ways is incorrect or embellished and can cause worry and confusion for the students. Students need accurate information about the death as soon as possible. You do not need to give them more information that they request. But you do need to answer their questions honestly. For example, “I don’t know” may be a truthful answer to a question about the death.

If the deceased was someone who had limited contact with only a few number of students (a dance coach) you may want to inform only students who were closely involved with the staff member. If the deceased was a relative or friend of a student, you may only tell students in a specific classroom or students involved with the bereaved student.  When informing the entire student body about a death it is best to have a prepared written statement. This is what teachers can use when addressing their classrooms. This ensures that each student receives the same information. Do Not Present Information about a death over the Public Address (PA) system. It is impersonal. Every student will have his/her own personal reaction to the news. Some will react strongly and others may not react at all. Sharing news in the security of the classroom allows students to react, ask questions, talk about the impact of the news and express thoughts and feelings.

If possible, ask teachers to present the information during 1st period or homeroom. If there is more than one teacher or an assisting counselor present, a small group format works well. Allow time for students to share their feelings and reactions about a situation. Students may or may not want to share. When it is their turn to talk they can “pass” if they choose. Teachers are advised to provide a handout on typical grief responses  and to lead a discussion with their students about the death. Allow for questions and discussion. Reassure teachers that they do not need to be concerned if they do not know the answer to a question and that the response “I don’t know” is appropriate.

Telling Parents

Parents are part of the grieving community. It is important to inform parents about the situation and what is being shared with their children. A letter sent home with the student, or mailed or a personal phone call from a staff member is encouraged. It’s helpful to have an “information statement” or letter prepared which can be used in such situations. The letter should include the facts of the death, what was shared with the children, behaviors that parents might expect from their children as well as ways they can support their children. You may also consider scheduling a parent meeting where grief related issues can be discussed and related questions answered. This may be needed when the circumstances of the death lead to fears or questions about school safety, about suicide prevention or other issues impacting the entire community.


First School Day:

  • In the first few days after a death, students and staff may need time to attend funerals and memorial services, address safety issues, and process their own grief. The Crisis Team can facilitate this by adjusting the daily schedule to allow for activities such as a school memorial service, and other opportunities for students to address the loss. Staff members may also need to take on added responsibilities for facilitating activities, such as a parent meeting, an after school discussion time or planning a memorial service.
  • Typically students appreciate returning to school to the routine of their school schedule.  However they are helped by having the flexibility to take a break when they need it. Some kids escape into the school work early on, to feel normal again and to provide a much needed diversion from their grief.
Provide Safety Measures and Special Services for Students:
  • After a death, especially a violent death, students may be wondering how to stay safe and to take care of themselves. In the event of a car accident, some students worry about getting into a car and also getting into an accident. Reassure them about the use of seat belts and driving within the speed limit and other rules that are to keep people safe.
  • Have a safe room at school where students can got to share feelings, be alone or talk to others, is extremely important. That space can be located in the main office, counselor or nurse office, an unused classroom or the library.  It is important to have someone staff the room for the first few days, as students use it. Most students will not take advantage of it by just using it to skip out of a class, however there may be a few.  Those students who are having a particularly difficult time may benefit from a referral to the school counselor or a community therapist.
A Checklist for Administrators:
  • Model appropriate leadership and grief response (it is okay to show your feelings)
  • Work with the crisis team regarding the plan and responsibilities
  • Lead staff meeting, discussing the announcement and plan for the day
  • Assist teachers who have asked for help in processing with students
  • Walk the halls, playgrounds, lunchroom; be visible and available
  • Discuss at-risk students and possible interventions
  • Respond to parents who may need support
  • Set up resources for parents
  • Mobilize peer support programs or other school support
  • Plan and lead an after school debriefing for staff
  • Check in with other crisis team members and reassess plans and schedules as necessary
  • Send condolence note to the family
The School Day
  •  Meet with the crisis team (before the students return is best)
  • Debrief with staff (before students show up for school, usually an hour before school begins)

·      At that meeting

  • Share a written statement and presentation of the circumstances of the death
  • Prepare teachers to share the information with their homerooms or first period classes. ( a team of two works best)
  • Present information about how students grieve and what behaviors might be expected
  • Review the plan for the school day/week
  • Stress the need for as routine a day as possible, allowing flexibility (time for students to talk about the death and its impact on an as needed basis)
  • Allow for discussion of the plan with staff and adjust as necessary
  • Discuss need for substitute teachers for those who need to be away from the students for at time because of their own deep grief reactions
  • Identify location, staffing and use of a “safe room” for students who need additional support throughout the day.
  • Allow time for teachers to talk about their won feelings related to the death/incident.
  • If applicable inform teachers of the designated media spokesperson. Advise staff not to speak to the media or allow them on the school grounds.
  • Assign a staff member as family liason
  • Announce the schedule for an after school meeting if appropriate to the situation. 
Debriefing and Follow up
At the end of the school day after a loss, it is extremely valuable for the staff to reconvene. Staff members may be tired and prefer not to engage in further discussion, but debriefing is an important and necessary part of the grief process. In addition debriefing can create a sense of unity and teamwork. 

Here are a few things you will want to accomplish:

  • Review the events of the day. Share personal stories, thoughts and feelings
  • Discuss students you are concerned about and make referrals to the school counselor
  • Plan for the next days and weeks
  • Discuss the funeral, memorial service or other activities
  • Share resources and information about staff taking care of themselves physically and emotionally.

·      Sometimes it is wise to set up a regular ongoing staff time over the next few weeks to process the impact of the death. Making this a part of a regular schedule will help because these meetings can ensure a healthy grieving process, for students and for staff. It is important to support each other now. No one should feel that they are carrying the burden alone.

Talking With Young Children about Death: Strategies for School Systems

  • Recognize that children are not born with a fear of death. This is something that is passed on to them from adults. Protecting children from death and their feelings about it by not talking about the event may only complicate grieving.
  • Talk to the children about the death as soon as possible after it occurs to prevent them from hearing misinformation and rumors from other sources.
  • Because classroom teachers are familiar to children, they should lead the discussions whenever possible. Avoid impersonal announcements over the public address system
  • Give children honest explanations about what happened. Detailed focus on the specifics of the death is not usually necessary and may frighten younger children. It is important to acknowledge that all information about the event may never be available and we have to be careful about believing everything we hear, since rumors are often created to fill vacuums in data.
  • Review with children the many different ways we can react to loss and reinforce that there is no one way or right way to feel. What is important is to recognize our feelings and talk about them.
  • Explain that sometimes a current loss can make us remember and re-experience previous losses in our lives. We may find ourselves thinking about a death in our own family, for example, that happened a long time ago, and not understand that these thoughts have been triggered by this current death.
  • Understand that children express feelings through their play, art work, or written work. Be sensitive to the messages that may be conveyed in these ways.
  • Recognize that children may need what seem like endless explanations about what happened because of their immature ego structure. Their obsessional questions may be a way to deal with the confusion they are experiencing in trying to understand and come to terms with the event.
  • Help children to remember the deceased and integrate these memories into their lives.

Helping Parents Help Their Children: Information about Coping with Trauma

  1. Why traumas affect us so profoundly is that they shatter our assumptions that the world is a safe and fair place, that there is always some kind of meaning in life events and if we are smart and responsible enough, we can protect ourselves and our children from tragedy.
  2. Recovery from trauma means being able to put the experience behind us. For children, this means getting back to the business of being children as soon as possible, and anything adults can do to provide an environment where kids can continue to be kids is helpful in trauma resolution.
  3. Children often view traumas in a different way than adults do. They lack the ability to appreciate the longer range implications of an event, especially if it was a community trauma and their own family was not personally touched. Their view of the trauma is often based on how they see the adults who are close to them responding. Younger children may be more alarmed if the adults in their lives seem very upset and emotional. Conversely, children may be less impacted if the adults in their lives are calm, reassuring and supportive.
  4. Children's reactions to trauma are as individual and different as one child is from another.  Some children may have big reactions to small events while others may seem to react minimally to terrible things. There is no one right way to respond.
  5. That children seem to recover from a traumatic event more quickly than adults is often a reflection of their ability to focus on the immediate present rather than on the past or future. Especially if they were not personally touched by the event or witnesses to it, they may be able to put it behind them and move on with their lives in a remarkable short period of time.
  6. Another reason children may seem to under-react to a traumatic event is that they can only tolerate intense feelings for a short period of time. So they experience the upsetting feelings for a brief period of time,  then back away from them until they can tolerate the intensity again. So what may look like denial or avoidance to us is really an example of effective coping. Parents need to talk advantage of opportunities to talk about the trauma when their children present them.
  7. External events may reactivate the trauma. TV shows, the news, etc may be reminders or cause distress as it brings up the original trauma. Being prepared for these reminders, whatever their source is the best way to cope with them.
  8. Dealing with trauma is not something most of us have much experience with - it's not a "normal" parenting skill. So if you are concerned about your child's reaction or lack thereof, a good way to deal with uncertainty is to check it out with someone whose opinion you trust. Your school counselor is a good resource as is your local mental health agency or clinic.
  9. While traumas are by definition upsetting, our response to them is what makes them manageable. When events in life seem out of control, the fact that we can control our reactions to them sends an important message to our children. Remaining in emotional control also helps us develop more effective problem solving strategies to protect ourselves as best we can from similar catastrophes.

Sample Parent Letter: Sudden Death
(this is typically used in the event of a student, or staff member but can be used for a parent, especially if the parent was known to many of the students)

Dear Parents:

Over the weekend, the school experienced the sudden death of one of our student's mother. We are all deeply saddened by this loss and have our crisis management procedures in place to help your children with their reactions to this tragedy.

Our district crisis team is supplemented by many community resources whoa re available to talk with your children an answer their questions.

Your child may have unresolved feelings that he/she would like to discuss with you. You can help your child by listening carefully, not overreacting, accepting his/her feelings and answering questions according to your beliefs. "I don't know" is an answer too.

If you have any additional questions or feel the need for further assistance, you may contact any of the following people this evening or the Guidance Department at our school tomorrow:

List community mental health people, clergy, local hot-lines, psychologists, counselors and web sites.

Sample Letter to Parents After a Death of a Staff Member:
Dear Parent,
A very sad thing has happened in our school community. This weekend, one of our staff, Mr John Smith, a 3rd grade teacher and our baseball coach, was hit by a car on his way home from school and was killed. According to his family, a car went through a red light and hit his car head on. He died at the scene of the accident. We are all profoundly shocked and saddened by his death. 
We have shared this information with your children today and had discussions with all the students in thier homeroom. Bereavement counselors, teachers, and other support staff have been, and will continue to be available to students, teachers and parents. Please contact the school if you have any questions or concerns.
As a parent, you may want to talk to your child about death because it impacts each person in different ways. How children react will depend on the relationships they had with the person who died, their age, level of development,  and their prior experience with death. Your child may: appear unaffected, ask questions about the death repeatedly, be angry or aggressive, be withdrawn or moody, be sad or depressed, become fearful or scared, have difficulty sleeping or eating.  
We suggest that you listen to your children. If they want to talk, answer their questions simply, honestly and be prepared to answer the same questions repeatedly.  
Optional:  A parent informational night: planned for (date, time, place). At that time, we can talk further about how to help children in grief. 
Our thoughts are with the Smith Family,
Memo to All Faculty and Staff Regarding Sudden Death:

Please keep the following in mind during the next few days:
1.  Points to Remember About Students During a Sudden Death Crisis
  • Sudden death is especially difficult because there has been no time to prepare for the loss. It occurs without warning and reactions may therefore be delayed.
  • If the circumstance of the loss have also been violent, students may seem preoccupied with both the fact that the death occurred as well as how it occurred.
  • If the death was related to an auto accident, and there were other students involved these students may require additional support upon their return to school.
  • Students are experiencing a wide range of emotions, there is not "right way" to feel, each person has a unique response to crisis.
  • Talking about feelings in open discussions is an appropriate ways of expressing grief.
  • Classroom activities may need to be altered, especially in the first few days after the death. If you have questions about a particular activity, feel free to consult the crisis management team.
  • Life will return to normal. However it will take time and vary from individual to individual.
2. If a student needs to be seen by a crisis management team consider contacting: _________________
3. If you need to talk to someone or ask a questions, a Crisis Management Team Counselor Will be available all day at:_________
4. Additional meetings scheduled this week will be on: ___________
(Above information from When Death Impacts Your School: A Guide to Administrators by The Dougy Center: National Center for Grieving Children and Families  and Managing Sudden Traumatic Loss in the Schools by Maureen M. Underwood and Karen Dunne-Maxim  and 35 Ways to Help a Grieving Child by The Dougy Center and Life and Loss  by Linda Goldman)

When Helping a Grieving Child, Please:
  • Listen
  • Be honest. Never lie or tell half truths.
  • Answer their questions. Even the hard ones
  • Give the child choices whenever possible.
  • Encourage consistency and routines
  • Talk about and remember the person who died
  • Make a child's world safe for grieving
  • Expect and allow for all kinds of emotions
  • Get out the crayons, pens, pencils, paint, chalk, Play Doh, clay
  • Run, jump, play and find other ways to release big energy and emotions
  • Be a model of health grief
  • Provide affection, reassurance and compassion
  • Practice patience
  • Support children even if they are in a bad mood
  • Expect some children to act younger than their age
  • Expect some children to act like little adults
  • Help the child at bedtimes. Sleep may come be difficult now.
  • Encourage healthy meals and plenty of drinking of water.
  • Keep parent-teacher communication open
  • Don't force kids to talk
  • Take breaks from grief
  • Remember that "playing" is grieving for a child
  • Seek additional help if needed
  • Help children know that they are not alone in their grief and help them identify safe adults at school
  • Set limits and rules and enforce them (helps child to feel safe)
  • Remember special days and anniversaries
  • Take care of your own grief and practice self care
  • Be available to the child when they need you

Adapted from Group Work with Adolescents After Violent Death by Alison Sallom and Managing Sudden Traumatic Loss in the Schools: NJ Adolescent Suicide Prevention Project: Maureen Underwood and Karen Dunne-Maxim

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