Psychology: Coping With the Death of a Student

Psychology: Coping With the Death of a Student

Charles Silberman

    Recently, I lost a former student.  She was the sweetest, funniest and kindest five year old you could ever meet.  She had a family which was strong, and an older brother whom I taught for a couple of years.  He loved his sister and was always proud to show her to anyone he could, and he would tell you how special she was. 
    The loss occurred when the child slipped the fathers grip while crossing the street and was struck by a car.  The brother saw it, and it happened close to school grounds.  This devastated the family and community, and it lead me to wonder what happens and how do you and your students cope with this kind of tragedy?

Incidence of Childhood Mortality
    Following my curiosity, I did some research and learned that children five and under in the United States die more frequently than you or I may imagine.  For example, according to the World Bank public data, there is a probability that 8 of every 1,000 children under five in the United States may pass before reaching five.  As children age, you can begin to see the numerous other factors that can contribute to the loss of student: car accidents, asthma deaths, violence, natural disasters, and so much more.  Those possibilies certainly lead to a good chance that in our teaching careers, we will face this tragedy at least once.

School System Reaction to the Death of a Student 
    With all that in mind, I consulted with a school psychologist, guidance counselor, and principal to get a sense for how a school system should generally react to a student death, and how a teacher can help them heal from the loss of a student as well as how they can help their students.  Moreover, I think there is a wealth of perspective that can be gained from facing such a loss.  So, I have included that towards the end of this article.
    The first thing that should occur when a student passes away is that the administrators should notify the teachers of the loss along with a plan of action, and then at the same time a crisis team will be sent to the school. Someone on the faculty level should find out exactly what happened and the details concerning the student, family and the funeral arrangements and find an appropriate time to communicate the information to the staff.  Coverage is usually provided so staff can attend the funeral. I would encourage you to go to the funeral. 
    A crisis team member should see the teacher who taught this child separately, as she is most likely extremely upset.  The crisis team will stay as long as designated or needed to help the staff and students cope.  Ultimately, the leader organizing this will decide who will share the news with each class. As children who need continued help arise, they should be referred for additional support by per county protocol.  That is the basic overview of how things are handled on a systematic and school level.  Each school operates differently, so some additional things that I have not described may or may not occur in your school.

The Grief Process   
    After the system does its part to help, there are still going to be hardships for everyone who was involved in the child's life.  You, no doubt, had a rapport with the child, so it is understandable that you are in pain. I would suggest that you first allow yourself to grieve in your own way and time.  The grief process is not a linear process.  Everyone grieves differently, and experiences different stages of grief at different times. Grief takes a long time. Be kind to yourself during this hard time.  The stages of grief are listed below.
    The most widely accepted common stages of grief are:

  • Denial (This isn't happening to me!)
  • Anger (Why is this happening to me?)
  • Bargaining (I promise I'll be a better person if...)
  • Depression (I don't care anymore)
  • Acceptance (I'm ready for whatever comes)
Coping Strategies for Teachers
    You may decide you want to reach out to a professional for help.  That is normal and okay.  I would also suggest that you lean on colleagues as they are probably experiencing similar feelings, and this support can help with healing.  Other things you can do include journaling, talking to family and friends, getting rest, exercise, or just taking some time out in a quiet place to reflect and morn.  Different things work for different people.  There is ample literature and websites out there that can offer additional suggestions and resources. Here is one website, for example:

Helping Students to Cope
    Once the system and administration has their plan in place, and you have started your grieving process, below are some helpful techniques and guidelines that can support you in helping the students cope.  Remember, children grieve differently than adults. Children may be may be irritable, angry, confused, quiet, and may not understand for a long time that the person will not return to school.  So be patient, kind, and delicate when supporting the children. 

  • Have the students draw a special memory of the child.
  • Have students write something special about their time with this little girl.
  • The librarian or teachers can read books to the children about the topic of death. There are many books for young children on this subject.
  • The children can also be encouraged to write down their feelings in a journal and read their thoughts and feelings to their peers or parents.
  • The school may collect money and bring it to the family.  Students and families may want to contribute to this, so help make them aware with administrative permission.
  • Perhaps there is an event you can do in the school or class to honor the child.
  • Be there for the students. 
  • Empathetically listen to what they have to say.
  • You do not have to play therapist or guidance counselor. 
  • If you feel you have some helpful advice to provide, you may do so.
  • If you do not know something or feel uncomfortable, admit your lack of knowledge and involve the school counselor.
    In addition to letting yourself grieve and helping support students and staff members, remember that death shows us the fragility of life, and it can also reveal the importance of relationships and people in our own lives.  I would urge you and anyone who is dealing with this situation to take time to build those bonds with the people you are surrounded with, including the students and staff.   After all, when all is said and done, I believe that the legacy we leave is not material wealth left behind, but the imprint we leave on the people we cross in our lives, especially the students we teach and the staff we see 40 hours a week.  So take time to treasure the gift of the relationships that you encounter on a daily basis, and take time to stop and smell the roses.

Contributor: Charles Silberman, MS, is a physical education teacher from Maryland who believes in a holistic approach to education that involves the growth of the whole child. He is passionate about movement and physical activity, and enjoys teaching youth of all ages.. You can learn more about Charles's work at:, and follow him on twitter: search for him @ThePeGuy.

To download the pdf version of this
article, click here: Download Now

© 2011, Physical Education,

Bookmark and Share

Printer-Friendly Format