- Cancer Information
- Schools and teachers
- Cancer in the school community
- The bereaved school community
- Action to take when someone dies
Action to take when someone dies
When someone in your school community dies – particularly a student or colleague – your school’s guidelines for managing critical (serious) incidents may apply.
Learn more about:
- Informing the school community
- Helpful information for staff
- Why share the news?
- Managing social media
- Indigenous families
- When death is sudden
Informing the school community
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. It is important that students are told in an honest and sensitive way, without overloading them with too much emotion from the person giving them the information.
Often the principal will work with other executive staff and/or the school counsellor to draft a short script or guideline for teachers to tell their classes what happened. Teachers are often very grateful for this as it relieves them of the pressure of deciding what to say while they are still processing their own initial grief. The school counsellor may be able to offer further guidance and support.
Helpful information for staff
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 if the family wishes the school community to participate
- the best way to send condolences from the school and individuals
- details of 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 support.
Why share the news?
The purpose of telling students is to draw the school community together and facilitate the grieving process. Students who are experiencing or have previously experienced other forms of loss (e.g. sick parent, family separation or divorce) may need extra support. The cultural diversity of your school community may also influence what you say and how you say it. Some cultures have particular customs around death and bereavement.
Managing social media
Be aware that older students may have already found out about the death through social media such as Facebook. Social media can help members of the school community share their sorrow, record memories and send condolences. However, remind students about 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 or email to parents, put a note in the school’s newsletter or meet separately with colleagues. Remember to tell all the people who need to know, such as canteen staff, Outside School Hours Care staff, and relief teachers.
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 and staff 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 or email to parents).
Podcast: Coping with Grief
Claire Tobin, Principal Medical Advisor, Department of Education and Training, VIC; Dr Antoinette Anazodo, Paediatric and Adolescent Oncologist, Sydney Children’s Hospital and Prince of Wales Hospital, Director of The Sydney Youth Cancer Service, and Conjoint Senior Researcher, University of New South Wales, NSW; Lisa Barrow, Clinical Nurse Educator, Children’s Cancer Centre, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, VIC; Margo Bulic, Psychosocial Support Worker, CanTeen, ACT; Amber Copeland, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland; Donna Drew, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Paediatric Oncology/Palliative Care, Kids Cancer Centre, Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, NSW; Allesha Fecondo, Education Consultant, Victorian Paediatric Rehabilitation Service, and Education Liaison, Ronald McDonald Learning Program, Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia, VIC; John Friedsam, General Manager of Divisions, CanTeen Australia, NSW; Pina Hutcheson, President, Catholic Primary Principals’ Association of WA; Cara Irvine, Year 8 Coordinator, Alfred Deakin High School, ACT; Andrew Long, Assistant Director, Policy and Research, Independent Schools Council of Australia, ACT; Dr Alistair Lum, Post-doctoral Research Fellow – Behavioural Sciences Unit, Sydney Children’s Hospital, University of New South Wales, NSW; Kristine Luszczynski, Learning Program Manager, Quality and Standards, Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia, NSW; Anita Neville, National Manager, Ronald McDonald Learning Program, Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia, VIC; NSW Department of Education, NSW; Mandy Roney, Consumer; Shannon Rush, Primary School Program Manager, Camp Quality, SA; Luke Wade, Education and Career Support Consultant, Redkite, QLD.
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