Many of these tips are specific to suicide, however, most of them will work for any grief event.
Many schools will react to a death or suicide loss by bringing in outside counselors. And while that’s with the best intentions, the truth is, students are going to want to talk to you, the person they know, and not a stranger. Being together and connecting is an important part of the grieving process and school is one place, if not the only place, where this can happen consistently over a period of time.
The goal is not to make teachers grief counselors but simply provide you with tips on how to be good and willing listeners with grieving students and perhaps add some activities that can facilitate the grieving process. And you can be the catalyst to starting an important conversation about death and it starts with your class of needy souls who want to hear from you as a human.
No matter what population you serve, all postvention efforts should lead with empathy because a death is a devastating event in a family and school community. (postvention = the protocol after a death by suicide)
Postvention Grief Talking Tips for Teachers
- Do listen to students if they want to talk. It is important for students to feel they can talk with a trusted adult about how they are feeling or what they are experiencing. When students feel they’ve been heard and have support, they are more likely to share their struggles.
- Do be empathetic. Students want to be heard, which you do by demonstrating that you are listening with nonverbal clues, such as facial expression, leaning in, and shaking your head. Don’t try to fix it but instead ask for more information, “Tell me why you feel that way.” “What makes you think you are at fault?” “What made [name] a special friend?” “I know how that makes me feel but I wonder how you feel about it.”
- Do guide a discussion about grief and the death if you can be comfortable with the uncomfortable. If your students seem distracted and consumed by the topic of how the student died and what it means, it may be appropriate to facilitate a class discussion about what has occurred, making sure that you state that whatever someone says deserves a moment of grace. Avoid any discussion of method or graphic descriptions, limit the time to about 5–10 minutes, and emphasize messages that it’s important to access help and support, that thoughts of suicide are treatable, and that there are healthy coping strategies which is a good topic of discussion. What emotions everyone is feeling is another good discussion, again understanding that no emotions are “wrong” they just are what they are. You can allow them to talk about the person who died by sharing stories. It is important to try and dispel any rumors about the student’s suicide and explain that they may increase their own distress or that of the family. (discussion activities here)
- Do maintain a normal routine as much as possible. Evidence-informed guides and trauma experts have emphasized the importance of trying to maintain structure even if the lesson plan is not delivered. Teachers need it, as do the students. Having a routine provides some level of certainty and comfort, which is often temporarily lost after a traumatic event. Maintaining a routine as much as possible also helps minimize obsessive discussions by students that can increase their distress and that of other students. Not all students are as deeply affected, depending on how well they knew the deceased. It’s hard. You can’t even fathom doing it. But showing up and making an effort counts.
- Identify students in need of further assessment and support. Often students who are struggling with the death of a peer can feel as though they want to end their life. So if they say things like, “I just want to die,” “I can’t do this,” “I feel like such a burden,” respond with empathy. This can be done by saying. “This is serious. What you say has me concerned.” Ask them to tell you more, listen for a bit and then ask, if you can connect them with someone who can help. “Can we talk to [school counselor’s name] to see if additional support would be helpful? Let’s walk down there now together.”
- Do allow students to share their ideas for memorializing. Ask them to write them down and share them with the wellness team because students need to feel they are part of the process. Hopefully, the school has a commemoration policy and that all deaths are treated with equal respect and memorializing. Please review the memorial policy before executing any ideas because some memorial ideas are not worthy precedents to set for the school, and some grandiose memorials can encourage vulnerable students to think that suicide is a solution. Planting trees and erecting memorials are not usually advised. Participating in a community fundraising or awareness project is, however, a healthy way to put grief into action. If student ideas are not meeting guidelines or the policy, sit down with students, hear them out, explain the dilemma and potential consequences, and strive to reach a solution that fits in the guidelines.
- Do allow a class discussion on what to do about the “empty desk syndrome.” Since the emptiness of the deceased student’s chair can be unsettling recommendations state that you can wait about a week after the memorial, and rearrange seat assignments to create a new environment. However, students may be involved in planning how to respectfully move or remove the desk. For example, they could read a statement that emphasizes their love for their friend and their commitment to work to eradicate suicide in his or her memory. If it’s a class the student was part of, this can help students be part of a collective decision-making process. One teacher of a small class asked if her students wanted to take turns at the desk and made a schedule for who would sit there that week. These students needed more time to grieve since the class had been very close; they liked the idea and it was what they needed which was different from what was “recommended” but it still worked.
- Make sure you honor your own grief journey. Seek support from grief groups and counselors and allow yourself to grieve, too. Students need to know you are human and it’s OK if you are not having a great day and you can tell the students you are struggling. Also, let them know you went to a group and that they exist. That way you are modeling help-seeking as being a positive step for finding your way through a difficult time.
What if the parents have asked that the cause of death not be disclosed? In the digital age, it’s nearly impossible to keep a death by suicide secret. And while you can’t put anything in writing about how the student died, you can certainly have those conversations in the classroom. You can say, “So the parents are not saying how their son died. But you know what you have heard, and what you think and how does that change your reaction if you think that he died by suicide?”
What Teachers and Educators Should Not Do Or Say
- Don’t let students leave alone to visit the counselor or to go for extra support. For student safety reasons, see that they are escorted. Explain that during this time, no one should be alone and that it would lower your stress level if they used a buddy system. It is too risky that a grieving student might take a dangerous detour.
- Don’t allow the whole class-time discussion to be focused on suicide. While there is clearly a reason to discuss suicide, it is important to contain this to a limited period within class time. Some students may feel the need to discuss the suicide, but there are often others who find it more distressing since not everyone would have had the same relationship with the deceased or the subject of suicide. Help the students understand that 5–10 minutes will be allocated to this discussion and that the remainder of the class time will be focused on the learning content, even if you and they are not doing it well under the circumstances. Adding in time for a mindfulness activity, a mental health check-in, discussion of how grief feels, or some other activity focused on self-care is also appropriate.
- Don’t allow students to stay on digital devices cruising the internet. Keep your classroom rules on digital devices consistent with what it has been in the past. Having the whole class engaged in videos or on social media is missing an opportunity to connect with one another, which is a healing experience and a strong protective factor. Students can get really dysregulated by going online and seeing all the videos by this person who is now deceased.
- Don’t perpetuate myths and gossip. Simply express that rumors can be hurtful to the family who is already suffering.
Keep in mind that with certain cultures or situations, these talking points may need to be amended to suit the population you serve.
- Reduce the likelihood of contagion by identifying other kids at risk
- Stabilize the environment: help teachers get back to their job of teaching and students back to their job of learning
- Facilitate healthy grieving
Other Helpful Resources
The book below has a whole section on postvention which is protocol following a suicide along with tips, ideas, and expert commentary to empower educators on supporting each other and grieving students.