Supporting children in school after a bereavement

Returning to school after any bereavement can be challenging, and even more so when someone has died suddenly.

To help the return to school to go as smoothly as possible, it is important to involve the pupil(s) in discussions about when they will return and what will happen.

When talking to the pupil(s) and their family about the return to school, consider any cultural or religious customs that may affect their return and/or reintegration with their class.

Returning to school and reintegration

Here are a few ways to help support a pupil’s return to school and reintegration with their classmates after a bereavement.

  • While they are away from school, encourage classmates to send letters, pictures or updates about class activity. Let them know their friends are thinking about them and miss their company.
  • Continue to involve the pupil in school routine – call their name on the register and keep their personal space in the classroom (e.g. coat hooks or drawers) tidy.
  • Ask their class teacher, or another member of staff they are close to, to visit them at home.
  • Keep the pupil and their family up to date with any developments taking place in school.
  • Talk to the pupil and their parents or carers about any concerns they have about their return to school.
  • Offer the opportunity for a phased return and re-integration to suit the needs of the pupil and their family.

Follow these steps to enable staff to support pupils as they return to school and reintegrate with their class after someone has died suddenly.

Support and privacy

Explain to the bereaved pupil that a dedicated staff member will support them, and that there will be a quiet, private space that they can use if they want to.

Communicate clearly

When talking about death, avoid using figures of speech such as saying the person who died has ‘gone to sleep’, or talking about ‘loss’.

Euphemisms such as these can be interpreted literally by children and this can cause confusion and upset.

Do use the words ‘die’, ‘death’ and ‘dead’ to give children clarity and avoid confusion.

Don’t make assumptions

If you are unsure about something a child says, talk it through with them and their family.

Children can pick up confusing phrases that they overhear from friends or family, and can misinterpret the meaning.

Answer questions as openly and honestly as you can

If you don’t know the answer or are unsure, explain that you don’t know but that you will try to find out.

Ask the child what their opinion is.

Be aware of cultural and religious customs relating to death, grief and bereavement

Ensure staff understand these and know what actions are appropriate to take.

Create a comfortable environment for children to talk about their feelings

Make sure they understand that it is ok for them to talk about the person who died, and their feelings about the death, whenever they need to.

Enable pupils to use non-verbal communication

This is particularly important for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Non-verbal communication is an important tool when children do not want to draw attention to themselves, for example by asking to leave a classroom if they feel upset.

Knowing that they can communicate in an alternative way, such as discretely showing an agreed object or card to a teacher, can help children to feel more comfortable.

You can also use picture cards showing different actions or facial expressions to help children discuss their feelings.

Prepare for significant dates that may be difficult

In collaboration with the family, plan how pupil(s) can be best supported on key dates that may be particularly challenging – such as birthdays (their own and the birthday of the person who has died) and other anniversaries, including the anniversary of the death.

If a parent has died, talk to the pupil(s) and their family about how they would like to be involved with lessons and activities associated with events such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

If a pupil or staff member has died, consider creative methods that the whole school or individual classes could use to communicate about the death, share memories and celebrate the life of the person who has died.

Be aware of themes or topics that might cause strong feelings or be upsetting

such as assemblies or lessons on a theme that relates, directly or indirectly, to bereavement or death.

If you have visitors in school such as emergency services professionals, remember that a bereaved child might associate them with their experience and this might give rise to strong feelings.

Talk to the pupil(s) and their family about what will be happening and let them choose whether or not they would like to be involved.

Ensure all staff and pupils can access the support they need

and that they know how to access this support.