Supporting Grief Among Students and Staff

Type: Article
Topics: Health & Wellness, School Administrator Magazine

September 01, 2016

Most school staff should be expected offer support to grieving students. After modest training, they can initiate conversations and provide ongoing learning supports.

Nine of 10 students in K-12 education experience the death of a close family member or friend at some point — and one in 20 the death of a parent.

Teachers worry they will say the wrong thing to a grieving student and make matters worse, start a conversation they won’t know how to continue or end, or identify issues they can’t address themselves and must refer to others. So they often say and do nothing. But saying nothing says a lot — it communicates that adults are unaware, unconcerned or unwilling or unable to help.

Profound Impact

Most school staff should not be expected to provide bereavement counseling, but rather to offer support to grieving students. After only modest training, they can initiate conversations and provide ongoing learning supports.

The following comments by a 15-year-old student illustrate the difference an educator can make in the life of a grieving student by demonstrating concern. The student had lost a friend to suicide over the summer and she returned to school with her mother’s note explaining the daughter was “dealing with the loss of a friend.”

“I had one note and seven teachers — seven blank, uncomfortable stares as they read, and seven pairs of adult eyes ashamedly avoiding my gaze as they calmly handed my note back to me,” the student said. “It was hard to let the testimony of my shattered world pass so irreverently from me, to people I hardly knew, and back to me again, with it staring me in the face the way they could not.

“However, I had one teacher, my algebra teacher, make a difference that day. He held out my mother’s note to me and, as I tugged it back, he held fast, catching my eye, and said, ‘I am truly sorry.’ With just a solid, unwavering glance and a sincere apology … someone had shown that he cared, and that meant all the difference.

“Things like that — being stopped in the hallway and reminded you’re in someone’s thoughts, or a genuine smile, or especially a sincere condolence — make the distinction between a teacher and a mentor, an adult and a friend. Showing or reminding someone that you care has a profound effect at any time. … But the same display of care or concern during grief can mean so much.”

Suicide’s Stigma

School staff members are affected by the death of a member of the school community — often even more so than the students — and should be reminded about the employee assistance program and resources within the school and community.

When the death involves suicide, often a great deal of stigma exists, which makes it more difficult to engage in open discussion. Guilt can be particularly profound.

Staff (and students) may search for cues they missed and wonder if the death could have been prevented. Many staff will have had personal experiences with suicide of family members and friends, considered or attempted suicide themselves, or struggle with depression. This makes it particularly difficult for them to support students after a death by suicide.

Free Assistance

Education leaders have several available resources for addressing these issues.

AASA is a founding member of the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, a collaboration of the leading professional education organizations, including the groups representing counselors, nurses, psychologists and social workers. The coalition maintains a practitioner-oriented website,, with more than 20 video training modules on topics such as how to talk with grieving students and responding to a school crisis event. Handouts and reference materials offer practical advice.

From the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement ( or 877-53-NCSCB) educators can access practical information, such as guidance on responding to a death of a member of the school community. Another resource deals with a death by suicide. The step-by-step advice includes templated notification letters and scripts on how to discuss suicide with students of different developmental levels.

Technical assistance and consultation is available from the center.


David J. Schonfeld
About the Author

David Schonfeld, a pediatrician, is director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

   David Schonfeld