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Critical Event Support with SISC - Self Insured Schools of California-

Planning, coping, and recovery resources when tragedy strikes.

Coping with the Death of a Student or Staff Member (Part 4)

Strategies for Recovery

Opportunities for Small Group or Individual Discussions

Students often benefit from the opportunity to talk in small groups with their peers and teachers, or individually, about a death and their own associated reactions and feelings. Students may express many different reactions and emotions, including guilt, even if there is no rational reason why they may feel responsible; and regret, especially if they had mistreated the deceased in the past or simply had not offered their friendship or support. Adolescents, especially when a death is a suicide, are particularly likely to experience these feelings, resulting in self-blame. Younger students are more likely to be confused about what has occurred or to reach inaccurate conclusions based on misinterpretations or misconceptions, for example, concerns that the teacher died of a heart attack because of the student's misbehavior or worries about dying from a noncontagious condition.

Writing Letters or Drawing Pictures for the Family of the Deceased

To minimize feelings of guilt and to help process loss, teachers may provide opportunities in the classroom setting for students to write about or otherwise express their feelings about their loss. Adolescents may want opportunities to journal, while younger students may wish to write letters or draw pictures to send to the family of the deceased. Student letters, notes, or artwork for families should be reviewed before they are shared to ensure that well-intentioned but potentially nonsupportive statements, comments, or pictures are not shared with grieving family members. When creative writing or artwork is used, teachers should seek adequate input from mental health professionals to avoid overinterpretation and to obtain advice on how to ensure that students receive appropriate services if they are demonstrating distress from the recent death or experiencing problems from unrelated events that have surfaced in the aftermath of the crisis. Activities that solicit anonymous statements, such as inviting students to write messages on a poster that is placed in an unmonitored location, should be avoided, especially in the setting of very traumatic losses, such as suicide or homicide, as school staff may not be able to respond appropriately to worrisome statements about suicide or threats, for example.

Designate areas for further support.

Support rooms for students and for school personnel can be staffed by mental health professionals from the school system or the community. Prior to any event, schools should establish policies for how students will access these support services. In establishing these policies, the following questions should be considered:

  • Is parent or guardian notification or permission required?
  • Are children self-referred, or do they require referral by a school staff member?
  • Do they require a pass?
  • Who will escort students who are very distressed?
  • Do they need to report back to class before the end of a class period so that their whereabouts can be monitored?

Furthermore, in some situations schools may consider limiting off-grounds privileges in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, and establishing policies that require students to be cleared before leaving school during the day and dismissed early only to the legal guardian or designee. After a major event, support services may be offered to students and staff before, during, and after the regular school day, and may also include services for interested family members. These services could occur on campus for a brief time after the incident, and after a few days the school may want to outsource the services by referring persons to predesignated community mental health professionals.

Monitoring and Referring Persons Needing Additional Support

The crisis response team should consider providing outreach to individuals who may be more likely to need and benefit from additional support. This might include but is not limited to

  • Close friends of the deceased
  • Students, current or past teachers, coaches, and staff who shared a class or group activity with the deceased (e.g., schools could have a member of the crisis response team follow the student's schedule to identify classes, individuals, or groups that may benefit from extra attention)
  • Students and staff who shared a similar characteristic with the deceased (e.g., if the death was from a motor vehicle accident, then student drivers may be impacted more; if the death was from a chronic illness, students or staff with the same or other chronic illness may benefit from more assistance)
  • Students or adults who had a difficult relationship with the deceased
  • Students with preexisting mental health problems
  • Staff or students whose family member recently died from an unrelated cause
  • Students who attend other schools, particularly if the deceased transferred or has siblings or relatives who attend another school (a districtwide database can assist in identifying schools to contact in these cases)

Schools, in conjunction with their mental health community partners, should work to establish an environment that is supportive of seeking and accepting assistance and encourage staff and students to refer individuals who express distress. These partners should emphasize to students that it is not safe to hold in confidence remarks by other students who are harboring suicidal thoughts or making threatening statements.

Commemorations and Memorials

If many in the school were impacted by the death, consideration should be given to issues of commemoration and memorialization of the deceased. These activities should not be an early focus of the response, because that could signal to the school community that its members are expected to "move past" their initial reactions.

The goal is to remember the individual who died rather than glamorize the means of death, and the school should strive for less formal but thoughtful responses guided by active student input. Policies should be developed for minimizing spontaneous memorials and addressing them when they are created.

Attending Funerals and Memorial Services

Students may wish to participate in funeral and memorial activities and benefit from doing so. Schools could communicate with the family to find out the time and location of services and their wishes about attendance of students and staff. If the funeral is going to be held during school hours and it is likely that many students or staff will wish to attend, schools could explore with the family the option of offering visitation hours or a memorial service as an alternative outside of school hours. Emergency management plans should include policies for attending funerals and memorial services that address such issues as attendance during school hours, requirements for permission slips and parent chaperones, and the like.

Removing Personal Effects in a Timely Fashion

The desk or personal effects of the deceased may serve as painful reminders to survivors. School emergency management teams should draw on the input of classmates and staff about how to deal with such permanent reminders in a manner that is respectful and meaningful to the school community. Schools should arrange a location such as the administrator's office, and a time, possibly outside school hours, with parents and family members, for the return of personal belongings from lockers, classrooms, display cases, etc. Schools may want to consider inviting a member of the crisis response team to be present.

Ongoing Support

Maintaining communication among school staff and parents when appropriate can facilitate ongoing monitoring of students' academic progress, social interactions, and peer relationships; identification of students or staff likely to benefit from additional school or community-based services; and needs assessment. Schools should plan for additional services at times that may trigger grief reactions, such as the anniversary of the death, graduation, the prom, athletic events, or after the death of another member of the school community.

Resources

National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (NCSCB)

The NCSCB provides free consultation and technical assistance to schools related to bereavement and school crisis events. The NCSCB aims to serve as a resource for information, training materials, consultation, and technical assistance for school systems, professional training programs, professional organizations, and agencies in order to further the role schools can take in supporting students, staff, and families at times of crisis and loss.
Link opens in a new windowhttps://www.schoolcrisiscenter.org

The Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families

The Dougy Center provides peer support groups for grieving children in Portland, Oregon, and provides training and technical assistance to establish peer support groups throughout the country. The center's website includes a directory of programs across the country and internationally that serve grieving children, teens, and their families.
Link opens in a new windowhttps://www.dougy.org

Conclusion

The death of a family member, friend, teacher, or colleague is a common experience for many that nonetheless can have a significant impact on one's social, emotional, and academic functioning. Schools may be in a position to support those grieving and, with the assistance of the mental health community, help them learn how to cope with loss. As with other crisis events, preparation, training, a comprehensive emergency management plan, and a well-functioning crisis response team go a long way toward minimizing the negative impact of loss and promoting adjustment and coping of students and staff.

U.S. Department of Education, Emergency Response and Crisis Management (ERCM) Technical Assistance Center. (2007). Coping with the death of a student or staff member. ERCM Express, 3(2). Retrieved January 10, 2023, from https://rems.ed.gov

More about this Topics

  • Supervisors Can Help

  • Guidelines for Student Policies and Procedures

  • Preparing to Keep the Workplace

  • Guidelines for Student Immediate Aftermath

  • Coping with Effective Bereavement Support