When a Student has a Death in the Family

You may be a teacher who has encountered this; a student has a death in the family.

You may be asking yourself, what do I do?  How do I handle this?  What is my next step?

I’ve had quite a few experiences with death, in my life and a few of a student having a death in the family.  This was my most profound as a teacher:

Juan, a third grader, had a sister who was killed by a train.  She was a teenager, was walking along the railroad tracks with friends, they had been warned multiple times by the school and their families to steer clear of the tracks while walking to school.  The horns blew repeatedly, despite this she was clipped by the train. She was dragged by the train until it stopped.  After being rushed by medics to the hospital she succumbed to the injuries.  Juan’s sister was dead.  I felt disoriented.  I thought of the parents losing a daughter, I thought of a family completely torn to pieces.  I felt I had to do something to help Juan and in some way help myself (I know that when I am feeling out of sorts and out of place, it is difficult to offer the best support to my students).

I bought When Dinosaurs Die by Laurie Kransy Brown and Marc Brown . I sent it in the mail to Juan.

I told Juan when he returned when students weren’t around that I was sorry his sister was gone. He shrugged his shoulders and remained silent.  The remainder of the year, Juan was quiet and introverted, much like he was before, with a deep undercurrent of palpable sorrow.

Here are some guiding steps that helped me through the years when a student had a death in the family:

  • Do something like sending a book, a written note, card, or make a phone call.  Doing something like this allows you to feel as though you are doing something helpful or soothing, especially in such a heightened and emotional time.
  • Send a meal, homemade or delivered, with or without a note.  A gesture of support in a time of crisis with a personal touch.
  • Depending on your nature and the circumstances of the death, you may want to visit the family, you could call ahead to let them know you’d like to pay your respects.
  • Provide a safe place for the student when s/he returns to school.  Take a moment, away from other classmates, to welcome the student back to class, tell them you are sorry about their loss, and you are there for her/him.  Then truly be there, (which could be as simple and powerful as being next to that student more often) extra time to do work, or extra care and attention.  It doesn’t need to be daily conversing or daily interaction, gauge through awareness then support when needed.
  • Take care of yourself. As teachers particularly women, you may find yourself feeling deep emotions for many reasons, you have lost loved ones, you recognized the pain and sorrow in your student, you feel pain and sorrow.  Take moments in the day to take a brisk walk, go to the bathroom and cry for a bit or breathe, talk with a trusted colleague or call a friend.  You will need some time and extra care.

Think about the relationship you have with your student to tailor it for personalization.  You may feel compelled to do more or less.  When a student has a death in the family, go with your heart, it will steer you well.

Please share your experiences or suggestions.

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