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Dealing with death

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By Michael Jones — Educational Consultant

Bereavement is something no teacher wants to face. But it is a reality. Michael Jones guides you through the grieving process

Boy leaning against a wall

Children will deal with death in different ways

‘The way in which children and young people are treated when someone important in their life dies has a profound effect on their future ability to manage their own lives. School has a very important role to play in this.’

This quote, from the Child Bereavement Charity (CBC), will strike a chord with anyone who has had to help children come to terms with the death of someone close. How should schools respond when a child is near to death and then eventually dies, or when a child is killed in an accident or as the result of a sudden illness? How can we support children who may have a condition where their own life expectancy is threatened, or where they have a life-limiting condition?

Good communication

Jill Adams, CBC’s Schools’ Training and Support Coordinator for the UK, believes that good communication and accurate information are at the heart of any whole-school’s response to terminal illness and bereavement. Jill is responsible for organising and running a wide variety of training programmes to meet schools’ needs. When a child has a terminal illness, Jill stresses that all information provided to other children and the wider school community should be ‘timely’. By this she means that decisions need to be made about how much information should be shared, when and with whom. These decisions will be affected by the wishes of the family, the stage of the child’s condition, and what is judged to be appropriate at any given time. A school’s senior management may choose, for example, for one person to be responsible for receiving key information about the child and liaising with the parents.

Jill can help schools to find organisations that are available locally, and is happy to talk to anyone over the phone. Parents and carers can also download information sheets from the CBC website (www.childbereavement.org.uk), covering topics such as ‘understanding bereavement’ and ‘how to support a grieving child’. Information sheets for children and young people are also available. There are online forums, too, where adults can share their ideas and receive support from others with similar experiences.

How should schools respond when a child is near to death and then eventually dies?

Honesty and respect

Parents and staff will naturally want to protect children from the reality of death, and may choose to tell their children nothing about their condition. Youngsters in this situation often want to protect their parents by pretending that they don’t know anything either, or by not complaining. Other parents may tell their children everything about their illness, while others will share exactly what they want or need to know. Most parents will have very strong views on this subject, and schools will need to find a way of respecting parents’ wishes. Above all, children need to have people around them whom they can talk to and share their feelings with in a private and non-judgemental way.

A whole-school plan

Many schools have developed an effective whole-school plan for bereavement before a child dies, rather than in response to such an event. This can cover other types of loss, including staff members, death of parents, or children dying suddenly through accident or illness. Areas to be considered are:

  • contact with the family; informing staff, children, and other parents
  • providing support for staff and children
  • identifying a key person to coordinate the school’s response
  • marking the death with a memorial or service.

It is important that the plan is broad enough to cover other circumstances when the school may have to deal with a loss or bereavement. There is a helpful factsheet, How to Put Together a School Bereavement Policy, which can be downloaded for free from the CBC website. Further information for parents and schools is available from Winston’s Wish (www.winstonswish.org.uk), another organisation that works closely with families and schools to support bereaved children.

When a child dies It is recommended that staff acknowledge the child’s death, even though the child may have been off school for some time. Tell small groups before informing the whole school. Be aware of ‘best friends’, who may need extra support. Also, bear in mind that this is a loss for the whole class, and work out with the children what they would like to do. Don’t change the layout of the classroom immediately, but acknowledge that the child is not there. Let teachers and other staff show their emotions and allow them to reveal that they are finding it hard. Give everyone ‘permission’ to feel sad or cry in front of the class, but say that it is equally okay not to be affected.

Providing ongoing support

Staff need to cope with the immediate crisis following the death of a child. Yet they also need to plan ongoing support for children, staff and the family during the long process of grieving. Thought will need to be given to helping brothers and sisters in the school, particularly when they return after the funeral – and in the future. Expressions of grief do not always just show as sadness, and staff could benefit from the CBC’s training opportunities or literature to find ways of supporting siblings. Many children will have received support from a local hospice, and this may continue for families and siblings. Fundraising for such organisations often provides a positive focus for the school community’s energies in the months and years after someone’s passing.

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