Chapter 2: When a family member is dying
Initial contact with the family
“At first I wasn’t sure it was necessary to communicate about his mom’s illness with the school. I was worried that drawing too much attention to our home life would upset Seth even more. But as his mom’s illness got worse, I was actually grateful that the school was helping me support Seth both academically and emotionally. He was having such a difficult time”. – Parent
If you are the designated contact person*, connect with the parent(s) as soon as possible. Your first contact with them is important in laying the foundation for any ongoing communication. Below are some suggestions for your initial contact with the family.
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1. Begin by introducing yourself as the designated contact person.
2. Acknowledge the family member’s illness.
3. Be clear that you’re calling to offer support.
4. Explain you would like to set up a communication plan in order to provide the best possible support to your student and their family during this time.
5. Ask if it’s a good time to have this conversation.
6. Ask what they think their child understands about the illness/condition and the changes the child is seeing.
7. Gently encourage or support parents to be honest with their children about the illness.
8. If they are hesitant, let them know that it has been shown that children benefit from an open and honest approach.
9. Ask the parent(s) if they would like you to recommend some resources to help them support their child at this time.
*The designated contact person is responsible for ensuring clear communication between the family, including the student, and the school, which means collaborating with them about what information they want shared, when, and with whom. Ideally, this will be someone who knows the student or students well and can forge a supportive relationship with the parents.
See also:An early and honest approach
As an educator who has taken the time to familiarize yourself with even the basics of grief support, you can respectfully offer to share your knowledge with parents so that they can support their children at home while you support them at school. If you are the designated contact person, you need to proceed with respect, patience, and compassion. Continue to offer guidance but listen carefully to the family’s needs and wishes.
Setting a collaborative tone in your interactions with a family creates a foundation that allows for an important balance between respect for the family’s wishes and open communication that is in the best interests of grieving students in the larger school community.
Respecting boundaries between home and school
Keep in mind that the family is likely experiencing intense emotions and navigating competing demands. While some family members may view your school’s involvement as supportive and valued; others may feel protective and may view your school’s involvement as an intrusion into private family life. They may or may not be open to accepting your support and guidance.