The death of a student – what to expect and how to deal with it

How to deal with the death of a student

While this isn’t really a French teacher issue, dealing with the death of a student is (unfortunately) a teacher issue. Unless you are not in the classroom for very long – or unless you are very, very lucky – you will probably end up facing this issue sooner or later in your teaching career.

I have had to deal with several deaths of my own students in my 29 years of teaching, as well as deaths of students at my school who weren’t in my class. I remember each and every one of them and think of them regularly. It’s always a sad moment when they come to mind, and I wonder what they would have been like if they had not died.

What will happen upon the death of a student

If your student dies, you will likely be informed by your administration. How this will happen depends on the procedure set up by your school and district. I’ve had counseling come to my room and pull me out of the class to inform me. I’ve also been called to a special meeting for all of the teachers to find out at the same time. Your counselors may ask you to allow them to break the news to the other students in the class.

Your school probably has a crisis team, who will be called into action after the death of a student or faculty member. Their job is to provide support to you and your students. They may inform the students in a group, but in the age of social media this is not always necessary. In the event that students already know about the death, the role of the crisis team will be to provide that support, allowing students to come to terms with the news.

What to do after the death of a student

Some things will be very painful after a student dies. Their empty desk will cause pain. Returning graded papers can bring back memories. Even taking attendance can be an issue, until the registrar removes the student from your class. You know your students and yourself – decide what will be more helpful to you. Would changing the seating configuration help deal with the grief – or would it make you feel like you’re trying to move on too quickly? For students, the empty desk may be a comforting place where they can leave notes, flowers, or stuffed animals.

Some of your students will want to talk about the student. Others will want to sit silently and process their feelings. Some will just want to move on with course content. These are all valid reactions, and nobody should be made to feel bad for their feelings. Some of your students will want to leave class to see their counselor, or just to sit in a place where they feel safe letting their feelings out.

After the death of a student, it’s important to be aware of the needs of your other students. They often will not have dealt with a loss before, or the loss of someone near their own age. They may have questions that you don’t know how to answer. It’s OK to refer them to a counselor or other professional if you don’t feel comfortable answering them. It’s also OK to admit that you don’t know the answers and that you are also grieving.

Should you attend the memorial service?

It’s entirely up to you. If you were close to the student, you should probably attend. Your school will almost certainly arrange for you to have a substitute, or another teacher cover your classes so that you can be there. Depending on the circumstances, the family may choose to do a viewing prior to the funeral. This may be more upsetting for you, but it may also give you a chance to say goodbye in a more final way. Some people feel more of a sense of closure, while others may be traumatized.

If you don’t feel that you can or should attend the memorial service, you might instead make a donation or send flowers. Many families will set up a GoFundMe to help pay for funeral expenses and could use the assistance in their time of grief.

The death of a student - what to expect and how to deal with it

School memorials

Sometimes, the school will hold a memorial after the death of a student. My school has a large Mexican-American population, and our MeCHA club puts up a very elaborate display for the Day of the Dead each year. They allow teachers, students, and anyone else at the school to place photos of their loved ones on the altar and it can be a nice way to remember the students who have passed.

Often, the memories of the student will come back later in the year when you feel that you’ve “gotten over” your grief. Graduations are often times when students who have died will be recognized. If you have to attend graduation or other ceremonies, be prepared for this so that you aren’t blindsided. Often, a family member will be there to accept the honorary diploma.

The death of a student - what to expect and how to deal with it

photo by Diana SFV, Wikimedia Commons

Take care of yourself!

After the death of a student, it’s important to recognize that sometimes we have a reaction when we don’t expect it. Our reactions can sometimes be very complex. If it’s a student that you had issues with, you might feel guilt for feeling that your classes are easier. If it’s a student that you didn’t know all that well, you may feel bad that you didn’t get to know them better. Be aware of the different reactions that you might have.

I remember my students

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, I have lost several students and had students go through unthinkable tragedies in my courses. I remember Jaime, murdered at age 16. I remember the three sisters that were in my class, who tragically lost both parents due to a murder-suicide. I remember the student whose father was killed in an early-morning car crash, and the counselor asked me to send him to the front office where his sister was waiting for him to share the news. And I remember Alicia, who passed on October 7, 2023 due to cancer at age 15.

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