Chapter 2: When a family member is dying

Communicating with the student

What the grief expert says
Lysa Toye, social worker, psychotherapist, addresses when a student doesn't want the school community to know about an illness in the family. (3:22)Video transcript

“I didn’t want all the other kids to know but I’m glad Mrs. Nunez knew. It helped for me to know that Ms. Nunez knew what was happening at home.  She was someone I could go to when I was having a hard time. – Student

Your first communication with a student about a dying family member is an important opportunity to begin to build trust and become part of their support system. 

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Find a private momentTo begin, look for an opportunity when other students are not present so that you can have a private conversation with the student.
Acknowledge the illnessAcknowledge the family member’s illness and confirm that your student is aware that you’re in communication with their parent(s).
Continue to look for opportunities to connectStudents who are initially resistant to speaking with you may feel differently later. It’s important that you continue to look for opportunities to connect with your student, even if these are not grief related.
Keep an open communication policyLet them know that they are welcome to talk to you about the illness or anything else that might be on their mind. Also let them know that you understand if they don’t want to talk about it.
Prepare student to respond to other students’ questions

If the family and student have agreed to share information with your other students, ask if you can help to figure out how to respond to questions. Responses might include: “My brother has cancer”. “My mom has an illness called ALS”. “I don’t feel like talking about it right now, thank you”.

Make a contingency planSuggest making a plan with the student for times when they might be feeling overwhelmed or in need of a break during class.
Be clear but honest during periods of ambiguityPeriods of ambiguity, such as waiting for a test result, can be very difficult for families. Very often, people will imagine worst case scenarios. Encourage family members to give as much clear – but honest information as they can.
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Often children, especially teens, might initially talk about something not directly related to the illness, such as a general conflict with a friend, before they’ll open up about feeling misunderstood by their friend when they talk about a family member’s illness. Follow their lead and continue to build trust. 

See also:The 4 C’s for more information about common concerns of children who are experiencing the dying or death of someone in their lives.