What to do when the unthinkable happens: dealing with the death of a pupil

Although nothing can prepare you for the loss of a pupil, one teacher shares advice about what schools can do when they are faced with this situation

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This year, the unthinkable happened in my school community. Our Year 11s returned to school after the Christmas break without a much-loved member of their year group, who had died from anaphylactic shock on New Year’s Day.

If any of the following few thoughts can help anyone else in the same position, then we shall find some comfort in that.

Don’t forget that teachers have lost a pupil, too

With all the focus rightly on pupils, there will be some teachers struggling more than others, and they need a mechanism to express their grief, too.

Say something

Pupils do not remember your words. They do remember your presence. Don’t worry about not knowing what to say, just say something. Share pupils’ grief with them. Sometimes, especially in the immediate aftermath of the breaking news, your presence can best be communicated in silence, but avoid the temptation to take the easy way out by saying nothing at all.

Take note of the environment

Some of the most effective strategies take the least amount of effort. Five minutes of rearranging the furniture in the room may be all that is needed to alleviate some of the pain for grieving classmates — especially her "next-door neighbour". The empty chair screams out loss and bereavement.

However, sometimes the empty chair needs protecting. Our pupils came back after Christmas to their pre-public mock examinations, and requested that their friend’s examination table remain in place. We kept it there, at the back of the examination hall, to honour their request while also protecting them from becoming overwhelmed.

Create a lasting memorial

Roughly a school term later, at the end of the spring term and just as the growing season began, we created a memorial garden. It was designed entirely by pupils and was well-thought-out, yet simple. In our case, it seemed to be a fitting tribute.

However, be cautious when choosing plants. Anything that could die easily could be setting pupils up for yet more heartache. Rocks, wooden benches and hard-wearing plants such as willow work well. The area must be low maintenance, too, because it needs to come with a commitment to maintaining it for the long haul.

Encourage pupils to use pastoral systems

As a church school, our chaplaincy structure, chapel and Christian ethos played a huge part in helping our pupils get through this difficult time. Other schools have pastoral systems and structures of their own. Make sure that pupils use them. The key is to provide them with an outlet for their grief without causing them to wallow in it. Books of condolence, photographs in prominent places, and lit candles all have their place.

Remember, each pupil has a name

Finally, the loss of a precious pupil is a reminder like no other that we are dealing with individual children, not just numbers or target grades. Each one of them has their own hopes and dreams, fears and uniqueness. Each one has a name. Use it. Repeatedly. At any opportunity. This short article is dedicated to Megan Lee (2001-2017). Gone but never forgotten.

Christian Pountain is head of RE and director of spirituality at a secondary school in Lancashire

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