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Helping Students Deal with Loss

Meghan Mathis


Student Grief CounselingRecently, one of my students lost her brother to cancer.  He had been fighting the disease for quite a while and though his death was not unexpected and though I did not know her brother, it was impossible not to be deeply moved and saddened as I watched this young woman and her close friends deal with such a profound loss. 

As teachers, most of us will be faced with helping our students work through the grieving process at some point in our careers. With that in mind, I wanted to discuss some important points that might help you and your students during these difficult and challenging times.

Be as Informed as Possible

With confidentiality requirements, often it can be difficult in our profession to get all of the information and details surrounding a personal event such as a death or accident.  Nevertheless, as the teacher of a student experiencing a serious crisis, you do need as much information as you can get in order to be able to best help that student. 

Speak to your principal, the school nurse, the guidance counselor, and other professionals in the building who might have information.  Make sure that they know you are not seeking gossip, but rather facts so that you can be prepared to help your student.  Often other students will have information as well, but be wary of taking what they say as fact.

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If Possible, Attend Memorial Events

While you may feel uncomfortable attending events such as viewings or funeral services, please consider attending one of these events if it is not designated for family only. 

While you may not have known the person who passed away, your presence could make a world of difference to your student.  Just by showing up, giving a hug, letting your student know that he/she is in your thoughts, you’ll be sending an important message that they are not alone and you are there for them. 

If you can’t attend, even a note home can have a big impact and make the student feel like you care.

As educators, we strive to let our students know we will always be there for them – this is a time when it is more important than ever to make sure that message is sent loud and clear.

Allow Time to Let the Rest of Your Students Grieve

Although your feelings naturally will go out to the student who experienced the loss, don’t forget that the rest of your class might be processing this tragedy too.  If the student speaks about their loss, has friends in the class who are aware of what he/she is going through, or if the loss is particularly tragic (like the loss of a parent or sibling), your students will be experiencing their own myriad feelings and coping strategies.

Plan some time in class to be spent signing a sympathy card for the classmate and, if appropriate, to discuss the tragedy and how people are dealing with the news.  As a side note, make sure you discuss with your students what are and are not appropriate sentiments to express in a sympathy card – many students will have never signed one before and might have no idea what to say. 

This is an important teachable moment – you are serving as a role model and example to your students demonstrating healthy, appropriate ways to deal with sad situations and to express sympathy and grief appropriately.

Be Sympathetic & Understanding, But Maintain Standards

If you are asked to provide work for your student while they are out of school, you might be tempted not to send anything home for fear of overwhelming them.  This was a mistake I made, and promptly learned my lesson when my student came into my room during class to ask why I hadn’t provided her with any work.  When I told her that I wanted her to worry about herself and her family and not my homework, I was promptly told, “I’ve been doing that for days, Mrs. Mathis, I need something to do!” 

If you are concerned, send the work home with a note that lets the student know that you don’t expect them to do more than they feel comfortable doing, but don’t forget that your student might be looking for anything – even school work – to keep their mind occupied.

When the student returns to classes, this might become a bit trickier.  Talk to the student privately to let him/her know you are there for him/her.  Offer some suggestions if they need to take a break – like going to the restroom, water fountain, or guidance office if they are starting to feel overwhelmed, but make sure you don’t let too much slip in the name of being sympathetic or understanding. 

Your student definitely needs to be able to get away from a situation if they are feeling overwhelmed, but sitting in your class with their head on the desk for an entire class period isn’t a workable solution.  Let them know that you won’t allow that, not because you do not care, but because you want them to get the help they need coping with their return to school. 

Work with Your Student

Finally, if your student has been absent for an extended period of time, make sure you (and your fellow teachers) work with him/her to create a plan and a time frame for when and how the student will make up their missed work. 

Having every teacher hand the student a stack of missed work when they return could overwhelm him/her, making their return to a normal school setting more difficult.  Be firm on the work you want them to complete and when you expect it to be completed by, but be realistic about how much you are asking that student to do.  Remember, they are still grieving and that will take priority in their lives for quite a while.

We as teachers are drawn to our profession in large part because we care about our students, their lives, and their development into healthy, positive adults.  Our role in this process might not ever be as important as it is during their most challenging moments – I hope that these tips will help you during these times.


How have you helped your students through personal loss? Share in the comments section!

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