For school staff
When a student dies of cancer
In our research phase, many families commented on the strong support and understanding they have received from their deceased child's school both whilst their child was in treatment for cancer and in the aftermath of their child's death. We share some positive 'grief and bereavement' strategies gleaned in the course of our research for schools here.
Note: The following information was gathered in the course of our research and is provided as a set of ideas to guide schools. It does not override any existing protocols for dealing with the death of a student at any educational institution.
Any person who dies is a loss to their family and their community...
When a pupil in their school dies of cancer, everyone is affected; staff, pupils and their siblings at the school (if they happen to be any) . Hence, grief counselling needs to be made available to ALL people within the school environment.
It is essential that schools have good contact with families and a staff member needs to be designated as a contact person for the family so that information is gathered and shared efficiently and any cultural or legal requirements are understood and adhered to.
Death and schools
All children and young people need information about death as part of their education in natural life cycles, so the sensitive discussion of death in the school environment is entirely appropriate. Children’s understanding of death varies with their age and their exposure to the phenomenon of death - some children may have had a relative die or even a pet. This will help them to understand the notion of mortality.
Helping the school community to deal with the death
When a class member dies, it is important to respond to the news swiftly and give the students the opportunity to convey how they feel and express any thoughts and fears.
Be prepared for different emotional responses. It is generally recognised that children and young people will express shock and grief in many different ways. It is worth explaining this to the students when you are announcing the death of the child. Some children may even laugh, this is not because they find the death at all funny (it is usually due to shock) but this reaction may anger other students.
Whether the death of the student is announced in the classroom or a school assembly it is a good idea to give the young people the opportunity to express their grief safely and positively as soon as possible. A smart ring-binder (or binder depending on the size of the school population) filled with plain A4 pages can be made immediately available for students to write messages to the deceased student. The loose leaves of a binder facilitate the removal of any messages deemed inappropriate . Store binders in a safe place. Make these memorial folders available to school pupils for at least a month after the death of the child.
Alternatively, set up a message 'post box'. Younger children can be encouraged to write short messages and/or draw pictures.
Ask the family if they would like to receive the messages or pictures in memory of their deceased son or daughter though it is wise to screen them first and eliminate anything inappropriate.
Siblings of the deceased child
School communities need to be aware of the effects of a young person’s death on the whole family. The effects of grief go on long after a funeral. If you are teaching a sibling of the student who has died, take time to speak privately with them, acknowledging their bereavement and the fact that it may imact on their schoolwork. Your understanding at this time can make all the difference to their studies.
It is important for a senior member of school staff to be available to the family and maintain an open relationship at this time. Some students will want to attend the funeral or send flowers etc. The wishes of the family will need to be respected although generally families are appreciative of others attending the funeral and attesting to the great significance of their loss. The continued care and support from the school at this very difficult time is crucial to the wellbeing of the family and will assist them greatly with the grieving process.
After the death of a student, schools often like to provide a memorial, for example a bench with a commemorative plaque and/or tree within the grounds. Again, families need to be involved in this process and give their consent but are usually very appreciative of such gestures.
Families may wish for a memorial service to be held at the school on the anniversary of their child's death, nd again, this may also help other school pupils who were close to the deceased child.
Principles for addressing trauma, grief and loss in the school environment
Resources for school counsellors