This information introduces a very difficult issue – one that hopefully never affects your school community. Although cancer survival rates are increasing because of better treatments and early detection, some people with cancer do die. There are ways to prepare the school community if you know the prognosis is poor. The school can also support people who are bereaved.
“We were told to say our goodbyes, but I wasn’t ready to say it… you are not prepared for it even if you are expecting it.”
Topics on this page:
- How to prepare for a cancer death
- Telling the school community
- Helping people who are bereaved
- What death and grief mean to young people
- When a student dies
- When a parent dies
- When a student’s sibling dies
- When a staff member dies
- Planning a memorial
- Professional bereavement support
How to prepare for a cancer death
When a person with cancer has a poor prognosis and it is known that they are going to die, your school community can plan ahead to prepare people for what might happen. This might include:
- staff and students visiting the person, if desired by their family
- students, staff and parents continuing to communicate with the person in other ways (via letters and emails, for example)
- the principal arranging for key community members to be told of the situation and kept up to date
- staff having discussions with students about death, loss and grief.
Keep in mind that after the person dies, the school may decide to host a service, arrange a memorial prize, offer counselling and/or fundraise.
Telling the school community
When someone in your school community dies – particularly a student or colleague – your school’s guidelines for managing critical (serious) incidents may apply.
The school must decide, with the family’s permission, how to inform people. It is usually better to tell students in their normal class groups or in small groups, rather than holding an all-school assembly. The principal can encourage staff to discuss among themselves how to share information, plan what to say to students and support each other. The school counsellor may also be able to offer guidance.
Staff can be briefed with the following information:
- an outline of key points that clearly explains the circumstances of the death
- some positive words of reminiscence
- details of how the school will honour the person who has died, if appropriate
- details of the funeral service and arrangements for attendance, if known and appropriate
- the best way to send condolences from the school and individual staff and students
- information about support and counselling services.
Staff should be asked to speak to classes only if they feel able to manage students’ reactions and questions. Some staff may like a member of the school executive team or the school counsellor to be with them when the class is told.
In some schools, or for some individuals, faith or religious tradition plays a central role in dealing with loss. If your school has a chaplain or spiritual adviser, they may be able to help tell people about the death and provide pastoral care – religious and personal advice and support.
The purpose of telling students is to draw the school community together and facilitate the grieving process. Keep in mind those students who are experiencing or have previously experienced other forms of loss (e.g. sick parent, family separation or divorce), as they may need extra comfort or support. The cultural diversity of your school community may also influence what you say, and how you say it.
Be aware that older students may have already found out about the death through social media such as Facebook. Social media can help students and other members of the school community to share their sorrow, record memories and send condolences. However, students should be reminded of the family’s right to privacy and the importance of not spreading rumours or adding to the family’s grief.
Not everyone in the school community will hear the news through class meetings, so you may need to use other means. For example, you can send a letter to parents, put a note in the school’s newsletter or meet separately with colleagues. Remember to tell all the other people who need to know, including canteen staff, Outside School Hours Care staff, part-time staff, external teachers of religion, music or drama, and parish members.
If an Indigenous member of your school community dies, any information should be handled in a culturally sensitive manner. In some cases, it may be offensive for the school to mention the person’s name or to use the image, voice or video recording of the person. School staff should be aware of this possibility and check with the person’s family or community.
Funerals in Indigenous communities often take up to five days, so affected students may need to be away from school for a week or more.
When death is sudden
While members of your school community will usually be aware if someone is near death, in some cases, a person’s death will be sudden or unexpected. As with other deaths, you should follow your school’s critical incident procedures.
It can be hard for some people to grieve – and react to a crisis – if they feel unprepared. Students might be angry that they weren’t told the person’s prognosis in advance. Others might feel hurt that they could not say goodbye.
You and your colleagues will have to be particularly sensitive if the death was sudden. You should be prepared for strong emotional reactions, and be ready to offer support (such as counselling) to those who need it.
Additionally, the school needs to inform others who may be affected or who might need to support the students (for example, by sending a letter to parents).
Helping people who are bereaved
If someone in your school community dies, each person’s reaction and grieving process will be unique. Responses to grief depend on the individual’s personality, how close they were to the person who has died, their own experiences with death and their access to support services. Bear in mind that it is normal for someone to feel out of control, overwhelmed or even disbelieving.
Be mindful that the staff who are trying to support grieving students may also be dealing with their own grief and loss. Staff should not feel that they need to hide their grief. It is important for students to see the adults around them modelling a range of healthy grieving processes. For people who are bereaved, you can:
Listen – Encourage the bereaved person to talk about the person who has died. If you have a conversation, be attentive and non-judgemental. Allow the person to silently reflect on their loss. Don’t try to talk about other things if they aren’t interested. Let the person cry, act angrily or talk about something else.
Find outlets – Explore different ways that the students can express their emotions. Primary students may want to make cards to send to the family, while adolescents may want to be with close friends in a supported setting. With the family’s permission, an online tribute or remembrance page may be a good way for the school community to share memories and send condolences. If it seems appropriate and the family agrees, a school memorial service can also help grieving students, staff and parents. Other options include creating an area of remembrance or raising money for a cancer charity.
Show support – If you can, offer support to the family or closest friends. Sending a note of sympathy is a simple but effective gesture.
Be patient – Accept that it may take some time for the intense feelings of grief to abate. As time goes by, it can become easier to recognise birthdays and anniversaries, although life has changed forever.
Stick to school routines – Some consistency can be helpful for students as long as teachers are flexible about how much schoolwork they can cope with.
Teach about cancer – Include discussion of cancer research and treatment in the curriculum where appropriate, particularly if students raise the topic.
Seek further support – Bereavement support services may help you or someone you know who is going through a difficult time.
What death and grief mean to young people
Children and adolescents understand loss in different ways, depending on their age and maturity level. They may also grieve in different ways to adults.
Early primary students (4–7 years)
- may think death is temporary
- might realise that death means someone isn’t around anymore, but may not understand the cause of death
- sometimes believe their behaviour caused the death
- might wonder who will look after them or teach them
- might worry that cancer is contagious or that they will die too
- may be very open and ask confronting questions
Late primary students (7–12 years)
- understand death is permanent
- know some reasons why death happens (e.g. illness, old age)
- are less likely to blame themselves for the loss, but might blame someone else
- want to know the facts about death, including what happens after death
- are better able to articulate their feelings and act sympathetically
Secondary students (12–18 years)
- usually understand the facts of death
- might respond in a self-centred way to the loss
- may struggle with their own mortality
- may express their distress through risk-taking behaviours (e.g. skipping classes, experimenting with drugs or alcohol, acting recklessly)
- may express feelings in positive ways (e.g. listening to music, playing sports, writing in a journal)
- usually want to spend more time with friends after a loss
- need to know support and counselling are available
- might find it especially helpful to participate in a private or public memorial service
Tips for supporting grieving children
- Understand that each child will react to loss in their own way.
- Do not underestimate the impact of a bereavement, even if a child is very young or does not seem sad. Their grief may be expressed through play or other behaviour.
- Realise that children often work through their feelings slowly, facing them in bearable doses.
- Explain the death in concrete terms. Avoid euphemisms such as ‘passed away’ or ‘lost’.
- Answer questions in an open, honest and age-appropriate way. Accept that children may need to ask the same questions many times.
- Allow children space to grieve – you do not need to ‘fix’ their sorrow. It is natural for people to express sadness in various ways, just as they express other emotions.
- Maintain routines and boundaries. School can offer a reassuring sense of predictability.
To find out more, consult your school counsellor or the hospital social worker.
When a student dies
The survival rates of cancer for children and young adults have improved substantially over the past 20 years. Today, about 80% of young people with cancer will survive the disease, and this rate is expected to increase because of improvements in treatments. However, some children and young adults do die from cancer.
“I was devastated when Lisa died. I didn’t think it would happen. She was my best friend and school just wasn’t the same without her.”
– Melissa, classmate of secondary student who had cancer
The death of a young person is an enormous tragedy, and it can be difficult to accept. It is important that your school community responds in a compassionate manner. The principal or the student wellbeing coordinator should ask the family of the deceased student what the school can do to help, how the parents would like to inform staff and students (if they don’t already know) and if a memorial can be organised.
If you and your colleagues worked closely with the student, you are likely to feel saddened and will need to take time to deal with your own feelings before talking to students. It may be helpful to attend the funeral service.
The student’s classmates will react in different ways, depending on how old they are (see previous section What death and grief mean to young people). Their reactions will depend on their relationship with the student and their own coping mechanisms. Classmates should be able to turn to school staff for guidance and support.
Schools sometimes choose to acknowledge the death of a former student. Although the person is no longer at school, their death may be confronting for some people in your school community.
When a parent dies
When a parent in the school community dies, the reactions of community members can vary. If the parent was a well-known community member, people may outwardly grieve the loss. If the parent was not particularly well known in the school community, many people may be unaware of their death.
“When my son returned to school, the teacher and all the kids had made a book about Joey’s dad. It was so thoughtful…”
Students who know a classmate’s parent has died will probably worry about their own family. They might want to express sympathetic sentiments, and wonder how to support their friend and what to say. With the family’s permission, some students may attend the funeral service to support their classmate, as may staff and other parents.
Other parents may also reach out to help the family in the weeks and months afterwards. Parents can help make meals, keep track of the child’s homework, or provide transport to school and after-school activities.
You and other school staff members will probably be aware of the death, and you should explain the situation to students, if necessary. You will need to grieve the death in your own way and provide in-class support (such as more flexible homework deadlines) to a student who has lost a parent.
When a student's sibling dies
The loss of a student’s sibling is extremely traumatic. No matter how close the young person was to their sibling, they will need time to mourn the loss.
The student may have to take time away from school, and their parents will likely be occupied with making funeral and other arrangements.
Schools can be supportive when the student is away from school, and try to help them manage their schoolwork on their return. It is understandable that a student may be more focused on their family than on schoolwork for a time. Sometimes it is helpful to refer a grieving child or young adult to school or other counselling services, in consultation with their family.
The sibling’s treatment team can also support the bereaved student, especially by answering any questions about the illness and explaining the medical aspects leading up to the death. A hospital or school chaplain may be another source of support. You can check that the family is aware of the bereavement services offered by CanTeen and Redkite.
When a staff member dies
When a teacher or other prominent member of the school community dies, there is a far-reaching impact. You and your colleagues will need to deal with your own grief, as well as comfort students who may also be grieving.
If you are grieving, find out about all available employee support services and take time to deal with your own feelings. If you worked closely with the person, you may wish to attend the funeral. The school may organise a memorial service to honour your colleague and to allow staff, parents and students to pay their respects.
Students can take the death of a teacher particularly hard. They will mourn in individual ways. It is okay for students to know that you are sad, too – they rely on adults to model healthy grief. Reassure students that grief is a natural reaction, and that counselling is available. The principal or a counsellor can talk to students about grief and ways to remember their teacher.
Planning a memorial
Your school might hold a memorial service to honour the life of a student, parent or colleague. Community members can collaborate with the family to organise the event. When planning a service, you might consider:
The setting – Will the service be held at the school? How formal will it be? Is there any special music that could be played or performed?
Who will attend – Will you make a public or school-wide announcement to let people know about the service? Would the family like you to ask everyone to wear a particular colour as a gesture of support?
Who will lead the service – Are there school staff, friends, students or family who would like to be involved?
Sharing memories – How can people share favourite memories or thoughts? Will there be a program or a slide show?
Flowers, donations and cards – Should people bring flowers, or would the family prefer donations to a charity? Where can people leave sympathy cards?
Appoint a staff member (school counsellor, chaplain or teacher) for children to talk to if they become upset before, during or after the memorial service.
If the person who has died was well known in the school community, your school might want to establish an ongoing way to honour them. Ways you can do this include:
- planting a tree or garden
- placing a memorial plaque somewhere in the school grounds
- establishing an annual award named after the person
- acknowledging anniversaries
Professional bereavement support
It is important to understand that bereavement is a process, not a single event, and can take many months or even years. A person should be referred to professional help if they simply need someone to talk to, but especially if they demonstrate significant changes in behaviour, such as:
- saying they want to die too or becoming extremely preoccupied with dying
- suffering academically or at work for an extended period after the death
- acting sad and withdrawn for an extended period
- increased risk-taking or self-harm
- having trouble socialising
Talk with your school principal and colleagues about ways to support bereaved members of your school community. If you think that a student needs professional support, consult your school counsellor. Staff who need counselling for themselves may be able to access it through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if this is available at your school.
You could also contact one of the organisations listed below. These can be good starting points for general advice or for referrals to bereavement counselling.
Bereavement support services
Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement
1300 664 786
1300 845 745
The Compassionate Friends
Cancer Council 13 11 20
13 11 20
1800 226 833
1800 733 548