Ask An Expert: Dealing with a Parent’s Death

Question: When a student’s parent dies, it impacts the whole school community. How do you recommend schools handle the death with respect to the student whose parent has died, the teachers and students who are impacted and the community at large? — S. C.

Answer: Thank you for submitting your question. You are correct, a parents’ death does have ramifications for the entire school community. In this column, I will delineate how schools can handle the death with respect to the student(s) whose parent has died, the teachers and students who are impacted and the community at large. Without further ado, I will begin.

The loss of a parent is a devastating event for children, no matter the age. Children derive their sense of security from their parents, so the death of a parent can make them feel vulnerable and afraid.  In regards to their reaction to the death; this depends on the maturity level and the resilience of the child in question. Regardless of how well they take it, they will need the love and support of those closest to them in order to make it through the grieving process. The school community can help by conveying how much they care for the student and being empathetic to their loss.

Children must be allowed to grieve on their own timetable without feeling rushed. At the same time, you can’t allow the student to use their parents’ death as a crutch or an excuse. You don’t want them to fall into a pit of despair and pity, so of course the school counselor’s or psychologist’s services will be offered to the student. Children need access to these services both immediately after the death and for a period of time after that. With the support of the school community and their family, most of the children who lose parents go on to lead healthy productive lives.

In regards to teachers, students, and the community at large, immediately after the death they will be searching for answers and information. Schools can help them by serving as a key disseminator of information. This is very important to the process, because we all know that misinformation can sometimes run rampant in situations such as these.

Everyone will not be affected by the parent’s death in the same way, but nonetheless, the death must be acknowledged by the school community. Hopefully, your school already has an emergency team that steps in when a crisis like this arises. In the hours or days immediately after the death, your school may not have a lot of details about how the student’s parent died,  however, you still should disseminate whatever information that you have.

Make sure that you inform your staff, faculty and administrators as soon as possible. Why? Because in addition to the school itself, these are the people who will be inundated with questions from students, parents and community members. If they are out of the loop and are unable to provide these sectors with viable information, your school could end up looking unprofessional and uninformed. Use every viable communication medium that you can think of to accomplish this goal, even if the school is on break.

Also, the staff should be briefed on the appropriate way to address the situation in their individual classrooms, and how to recognize signs that the death is affecting students negatively. Students can be affected regardless of whether or not they knew or are related to the deceased parent. This may lead to anxiety or sadness, especially when children come to the realization that we all are human, even their parents. Some students may become overly preoccupied with death and the possibility that their parents could meet the same fate. Remember, students who are having a difficult time dealing with the situation should be referred to either the school counselor or psychologist.

It is not a good idea for us to believe that we are protecting students by withholding information. Like adults, students want to be told the truth. If they don’t get the truth from the adults around them, they tend to try to put the pieces to the puzzle together as best they can, which can quickly turn into myths and misconceptions. Even if you don’t know the whole truth, tell them the factual information that you possess concerning the parent’s death.

It is best to prepare a written statement to inform the entire student body about the death. Teachers can read the statement in their classrooms. The worst thing that you can do is to deliver the news over a PA system, because it is too cold and nonchalant to express the true gravity of the situation. After the news is announced, students should be allowed to freely express their feelings and ask questions. Also, teachers can use this situation as a springboard to talk about death and dying.

It is also important to remember that parents are also a part of the equation. As soon as possible, preferably via a letter home or a personal phone call, parents should be informed of the death and also of the information that has been shared with their children. It is also important to have a generic form letter that can be used in such instances. Parents will want to know the specifics surrounding the death, as well as strategies that they can use to talk to their children about the situation.

As I established at the beginning of my advice column, a parent’s death has ramifications for the whole school community. In this column, I have provided you with information that your school can use to handle a parent’s death with respect to the student whose parent has died, the teachers and students who are impacted and the community at large. At the end of the day, the golden rule in this type of situation is to “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you, in your time of bereavement.”

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