Helping students cope with death

The loss of someone close through death is a traumatic, including for children and young people. Here’s our guide for school staff to help students cope with death.

The loss of someone close through death is a traumatic and painful event for the majority of people. 

For many children and young people, the death of a parent, sibling, friend or relative can be extremely difficult. This is because of the child’s inability to understand and articulate their feelings. 

Similarly, young people who have been bereaved might find the emotions they’re experiencing to be frighteningly intense.

Here’s how schools can understand, and support, bereaved students.

Bereavement and students

Discussing bereavement is difficult for both teachers and students. However, talking about it should be encouraged. As grief is individual, we need to remember that no two students will have the same bereavement behaviours.

Some bereaved students want to return to school fairly soon after a death. This is because it offers some normality and routine. 

It’s important to help the grieving student stick to their pre-bereavement routine. This will help them feel secure, as well as gradually accept life continuing.  A balance between being supportive and keeping their usual school routine as normal is the best approach.

Bereaved students need time, patience and compassion from school staff. The familiarity of school surroundings, along with support from teachers, dinner ladies and other school staff can help the child or young person to share their feelings. A staff member trained in recognising grief behaviour may be the best person to support the bereaved student.

It’s common for some bereaved students to feel like they’re ‘going mad’, as the grieving process takes its toll. It’s important for school staff to reassure them that what they’re experiencing is very normal, and is a natural reaction to the death of someone close.

Empathy and compassion are important for school staff when supporting a bereaved student. However, forming a strong emotional attachment with them can prove damaging to the student. It can emotionally drain the staff member. It’s important to safeguard both the student and colleagues.

Professional agencies, such as Cruse, can support bereaved children and young people.

Teaching staff need to understand the impact of bereavement on students, and know how to support them.

Ask the school’s departmental heads/senior teaching staff about staff attending specialist training for bereaved students.

We also recommend that you review existing school policies and procedures about bullying. These should include guidelines for bereaved students who are being bullied.

Bereavement behaviours at school

Grief is individual; the processes of mourning are never the same between two people. However, there can be patterns in bereavement responses. These can depend on age, cognitive development, the relationship with the person who has died and emotional resilience.

Members of the school staff may be the first to recognise changes in a bereaved student’s behaviour. Their immediate family might not notice it, as they’re also grieving. 

When it comes to children and young people, the following responses are common to see at school:

Young children may appear to be sad and withdrawn one minute, then might begin playing the next. This is because, unlike adults, bereaved children aren’t able to grieve continuously. They’ll need respite from their grief. 

Play allows bereaved children to shift focus from their grief, even for a short while, until they have rested enough to continue grieving. 

It is very important not to view these play breaks as the child ‘getting over the death’. Not only is this inaccurate, but it can result in the child getting told off for attention seeking when they go back to grieving.

Grieving is exhausting. School staff may notice that a bereaved student is tired and listless.

Bereavement can dramatically affect the sleeping patterns of children and young people. They might be having nightmares or display hyper vigilant behaviour – this can make them appear even more tired and lethargic.

Exhaustion will affect their ability to concentrate on work. It’s pretty common to have a bereaved student fall asleep during lessons.

It is common for bereaved students to have mood swings. They might behave in ways that are very different to how they behaved before a death.

For example, a previously outgoing and popular student might become withdrawn following the death of someone close.

Bereaved students might start to display regressive behaviours. This is because they’re trying to recreate a sense of safety, before the death happened.

School staff may also notice a bereaved student’s academic skills go down. Their spelling may become poor. They might not be able to understand math problems that they could before the bereavement.

It can be alarming for a member of staff to see a bereaved student develop a stutter or speech impairment, use baby talk or suck their thumb.

However, as the bereaved student is able to accept the death, these behaviours should disappear.

Be aware that regressive behaviours may be noticed by other students. They might tease the child or young person.

School staff may notice that a bereaved student is angry, frustrated and aggressive. 

Such challenging behaviour is common in older bereaved students, particularly as they go through puberty. The death of someone close can serve to heighten and complicate these feelings further. A good natured and amiable pupil may become aggressive following the death of someone close.

If a bereaved student is being physically or verbally threatening, it is important that appropriate boundaries are put in place. These need to be stuck to by all members of the school staff. Allowances for the bereaved student’s grief shouldn’t mean aggression and violence are unchallenged. 

We recommend a school staff member, who the bereaved student trusts, speaks to them if they start to display aggressive behaviour. The staff member will need to reassure the student that anger and frustration are normal when grieving. But, harming others, verbally or physically, isn’t acceptable. 

This can be a difficult situation for a member of staff.. They may feel that challenging the bereaved student might make their grief worse. Be assured, nothing you say can make the student’s bereavement worse. 

By challenging the aggressive behaviour, you’re showing that you care about their wellbeing. The reinforcement of school rules helps establish familiarity and certainty of normal school life.

In some cases, a bereaved student might engage in high risk behaviours to distract from their emotional pain. This can include excessive alcohol consumption, substance misuse and self harm.

If you are concerned that a bereaved student is doing any of the above, address it quickly.

It’s common for newly bereaved students to not look like they’re grieving, or to deny their grief.

They might act like the death didn’t happen. They might show compensatory behaviours, such as throwing themselves into their studies, or be overly keen in sporting activities. This denial can act as a protective mechanism. It allows the bereaved student more time to process the death.

It’s common for some bereaved students to delay their grief. Other life changing incidents, such as moving home, getting a step parent or experiencing another bereavement can delay this even further.

Unfortunately, there is no way to divert grief. Regardless of how long the student has denied their grief, they’ll go through the grieving process eventually.

If you’re concerned about a bereaved student’s wellbeing, talk to their family.

Need a little more help?

You can refer children and young people to our bereavement services.