As a teacher, you have students come into your classroom after every kind of experience – Sometimes, a student may come into your classroom after experiencing a huge loss. 


Perhaps their parent tells you during drop-off that the family pet died that morning. Perhaps the principal lets you know that a close relative, even a parent or a sibling, has died. Many teachers also work with students who’ve experienced traumatic losses, like the sudden death of a parent in an accident.


Your first thought after hearing about a student’s loss may be to refer them to the counselor – and this is a great instinct. You are not, nor should you be expected to be, your student’s grief counselor. 


But as much as your student can benefit from counseling, the way you support them in the classroom can make an enormous difference, too. But some losses seem so great a burden for a child to bear, and many teachers find themselves wondering how to approach these students when they’re carrying so much grief.


What should you say to them? Should you even mention it? And should you disclose the loss to the student’s classmates?


These are all excellent questions. Here are some do’s and don’ts when supporting a grieving student after a serious or traumatic loss.


Don’t Be Afraid to Say “Death”

Many adults feel inclined to use euphemisms when talking about death with children. For example, you might be tempted to say that a student’s mother has “passed away” or that their dog has “gone to doggy heaven.” 


But using euphemisms like these may make the student feel like you are afraid to talk about what really happened. It can also be confusing for students, who know their loved one has died, to hear you talk about them “moving on” or “sleeping.”


Of course, it’s important to talk to the student’s parents about how they’ve explained the death to the child (for example, it’s important to know every family’s beliefs and teachings about the afterlife). But using terms like “death” and “died” in a compassionate way can let your student know that you’re not afraid of talking about, and supporting them through, what happened.


Don’t Pressure a Grieving Student to Talk

grieving student 2


Talk to your student, privately, about what happened as early as possible. Don’t leave them guessing about whether or not you know what happened and if they’re “allowed” to talk about it. 


Let them know that you’re aware that a loved one has died. Normalize any feelings they’ve expressed about it. Ask them if they’d like to talk about it further, and if they do, allow them to express themselves. Listen more than you talk – resist the impulse to share your own experiences with death and grief unless the student specifically asks for it.


However, every child processes grief in their own way. Don’t pressure any student into talking about it if they don’t want to. The student may appear to be “fine” during school, and this may be their way of processing what happened. If you’re truly worried that your student isn’t adequately expressing their emotions, then talk to the school counselor.


Do Reach Out to Other Family Members

Teachers are often a core source of support for students and their families. If you can, reach out to the student’s family, because they were also likely affected by the death. Express your empathy, and ask them if there’s anything you can do to support the student at school.


The family may invite you to the funeral or memorial. If it’s possible and you feel comfortable, it’s a good idea to attend to show your support for the student.


Don’t Tell a Grieving Student Not to Cry

There is no wrong way to feel when you’re grieving. Your student probably feels a wide range of emotions after the loss, including sadness, sorrow, anger, guilt, and more. Never tell a grieving student that they shouldn’t be feeling how they’re feeling. This only adds shame and confusion to an already distressing experience.


For example, never say things like:

  • Don’t cry.
  • Chin up.
  • Everything will be okay.
  • I lost my parent too, and I got through it.
  • You are the man of the house now, so you need to be strong.
  • Your mother (or other loved one who died) wouldn’t have wanted you to be sad.

Do Ask the Grieving Student if They Want Others to Know

One common question that teachers have after a student has experienced a loss is if they should let the student’s classmates know. When the student’s classmates are aware of what happened, this can reduce the pressure on the student to pretend like everything is “okay.” Their classmates can also offer emotional support, which can be helpful for students.


Experts have varying opinions on this. The safest course of action is to let the student decide. Ask them if they’d like the class to know about the loss. If they do, then it may be helpful to talk about death and grief as a class. You can also invite their classmates to write or draw condolence cards for the student and their family (of course, always review content to make sure it’s appropriate).


But some students may not want anyone to know; they may want to return to “school as normal.” Others may want to tell only their closest friends. Let them decide how they want to handle the return to school after their loss.


Do Keep Expectations Reasonable

Understand that grief can have effects on the student’s behavior and academic performance. You might notice that your student is frequently distracted or loses focus. They might complain of somatic issues like headaches or stomachaches. They might simply not have any motivation to complete schoolwork.


Be reasonable with your expectations, and understand that grief is a lifelong process. At the same time, don’t take expectations away altogether. It’s important for students to return to a sense of normalcy and routine at school. Having a sense of predictability in the rules and routines of school may provide them with a sense of comfort after a scary loss.


Mindfulness Can Help With a Grieving Student

Research shows that practicing mindfulness can help people process and accept the painful emotions that are associated with grief. Calm Classroom’s school-based mindfulness curriculum makes it simple and easy for teachers to give mindfulness lessons in the moment they need them.


Get in touch with us for more information on how our program can help your most vulnerable students.


Get in touch with Calm Classroom