Chapter 3: When a family member has died

Strategies for working with the student

What the grief expert says
Lysa Toye, social worker, psychotherapist, talks about helping children and youth talk about a stigmatized death.(3:22)Video transcript
Lysa Toye, social worker, psychotherapist, talks about when a student doesn’t want a death in the family to be acknowledged.(3:22)Video transcript

“My math teacher let me have extra time to finish my tests. Math was always hard for me but after mom died, I found it harder than ever to concentrate on math.”. – Student

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Making an information-sharing plan

Include your student

Include your student in the plan for informing the class about the death. 

How, and what, will the class be told? 

Does your student want to be there when the information is shared? 

Although it’s not common, some students may want to tell the class themselves, with the support of their teacher.


When the student doesn’t want to share information with the class

Some students may request that the class isn’t informed about the death at all in an attempt to not stand out as different from their peers. Gently encourage your student to allow for information to be shared with the class so that everyone gets the same information at the same time and rumours can be minimized. Let them know that this also gives classmates the opportunity to be supportive.

Talking about the death

When the student doesn’t want to talk about it

Once your student has returned to school, if they don’t want to talk with you about the death, let them know that’s okay with you and that if they change their mind, you’ll be available.


When acknowledging the death

When acknowledging the death directly, try to do so when other students are not present. Use the name of the person who died.  For example, “I was really sad to hear that your brother Chris died over the weekend.”

Making academic accommodations

Be flexible

Be flexible with deadlines, allow for increased processing time, and make academic accommodations as needed. Consider excusing non-mandatory assignments.

Responding to emotional distress

Make a plan

Make a plan for any time your student may feel overwhelmed while in class. Help them identify a place or a person they can go to if this happens. Some options include: 

  • Going to a safe place in the classroom. Some educators have found having a pop tent in the classroom with pillows and books to be a wonderful place for grieving younger students to utilize as they are able to have a sense of privacy yet still hear what is happening in the class.
  • Going to the office to spend time with an administrator, school secretary, or school counsellor. 
  • Going to another agreed upon area in the school, such as a calming area, sensory room, or quiet space.  
  • Many students find it difficult to express their distress in words, and most students do not want their classmates to know that they are having a hard time. Consider making a plan that includes a signal, such as a tug on their ear, that your student can use to let you know that they need a break or some additional support.
  • Determine if someone needs to accompany your student and, if so, make a plan for this.


When the student shows signs of anger or agitation

If your grieving student is showing signs of agitation or anger, remember that this is normal. While it may be easier to support ‘softer’ emotions, such as love or sadness, it’s important to acknowledge and support the healthy expression of all emotions. 

Explore some safe options for the expression of anger, such as deep breathing, visualizing a safe place, holding or pounding Play-doh or clay or a pillow.   

Some grieving students benefit from being offered a quiet activity or breathing exercise that they can use to help their body relax and calm down.

Helping your student prepare for questions

Understanding the meaning of “I’m sorry”

Young children may need it explained that the person who is saying “sorry” as a condolence isn’t apologizing for doing anything wrong but is expressing that they are feeling sad that the person died.


Dealing with specific questions

Questions such as “Do you have siblings”, “How many siblings do you have?”, or “Where’s your dad?” can be difficult ones for a bereaved student to navigate. Ask your student if they would like your help to figure out how to respond to such questions. 


Questions about the death

Students of all ages may struggle to know how to respond to questions or comments about the death or about the person who has died. Simply helping them to develop some language can be a powerful support strategy. For example:

  • “I’m sorry for your loss” can be responded to with a simple “Thank you”. 
  • “How did your sister die?” can be responded to with a brief explanation of the truth (“A car hit her when she was crossing the street”.)
  • If the student doesn’t want to talk about it, they can say “I don’t feel like talking about it right now, thank you”. 
Working with your other students

Identify classmates to help

While your student is absent from school, identify classmates who are willing to copy and share notes while the student is away.


Role play

Consider role play as a way to help students learn ways that they can express compassion and support as well as what to expect at a visitation, funeral, or celebration of life.

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