Chapter 5: Planning for when a death is unexpected

When a death is unexpected

classroom“A couple of the students were inconsolable. We had teachers who knew the students particularly well stay with them and provide them with support”. – Vice Principal

Many factors will influence the grief response to an unexpected death. 

Roll your mouse over each of the boxes below to view more information on these factors.

 Who died





• Student

• Student’s family member

• Staff member


How the death occurred





• Suicide

• Homicide

• Accident (e.g. drowning, car accident, hit by car)

• Sudden medical event (e.g. seizure)


Where the death occurred





• At home

• In hospital

• Your school

• Elsewhere (e.g. traffic accident)


External personnel who may be involved 



• Police

• Paramedics


Consider the following:

  • As an administrator, you should make initial contact as soon as possible. 
  • It’s important that you confirm the death, either with law enforcement officials or by the family at the outset. 
  • Who will be the school’s designated contact person for follow-up communication? 
  • When speaking to a family member, be aware that they may or may not wish to speak at length with you. Families will be in emotional overload and may not be able to take in or provide a lot of information.


See also:For communication strategies and tips, see Nine tips for speaking with a grieving person in Chapter 1 – Communication strategies of Module 2 – Supporting Grieving Students.

For general information about supporting grieving students, see Module 2 – Supporting Grieving Students, Chapter 3 – When a family member has died; Module 3 – Support for Student Deaths, Chapter 3– After a student’s death and Chapter 4– After a student’s death by suicide.