You are here:

Last reviewed on 9 April 2020
Ref: 39988
School types: All · School phases: All

Bereavement during coronavirus presents a special set of challenges. Get expert advice on how best to communicate with and support pupils who are grieving in the age of social distancing.

While the stark reality of coronavirus is dominating the news, it’s important to remember that children grieve all deaths equally. And whether COVID-19 related or from causes we’re more familiar with, right now grieving is a different experience.

As we can’t come together and take comfort in each other’s presence, we need to be able to respond to death in a virtual space. If you’re facing this in your school community, we hope this article will help you get through it.

Our thanks to Diana Stubbs of Winston's Wish and Tracey Bosely of Child Bereavement UK who advised us on this article.

Telling pupils about a death

The first thing that will change is how you share the news of a death with pupils. 

The death of a pupil's family member

1. Contact the bereaved child's family

The headteacher or other senior leader should make this difficult phone call.

It'll be useful to have some notes prepared ahead of time. For example:

  • Acknowledge what's happened – "I'm so sorry to hear that Gemma's grandmother died yesterday."
    • Don't be afraid to ask how the death occurred – you need an understanding of what's happened so you can support the child (and the rest of your school community) appropriately
  • Express support on behalf of the school – "I'm calling to let you know that we're here for you and for Gemma and to see if there's anything we can do to help."
    • Explain what sort of support you have available at your school, e.g. a bereavement team that will keep in touch with the pupil as they grieve
  • Discuss how to share the news with the rest of the school community – "Would it be alright for me to let Gemma's teachers and classmates know what's happened? I'm sure they'll want to be there for her right now."
  • Ask the family if you can share their contact information – "Gemma's class would probably like to reach out to her so she doesn't feel alone right now. How should I tell them to get in touch with her?"

Take the following steps in line with what you’ve agreed with the family (for example, about how much information they’re happy for you to share and who with, and whether/how they wish to be contacted with condolences).

2. Notify staff

You'll need to let the bereaved child's class teacher/form tutor know what's happened, so they can contact the child's closest friends (step 3). You might tell the rest of your staff at this point, or perhaps for now just teachers or staff members you know the child is taught by or close to.

3. Contact the bereaved child's closest friends

These children are likely to be most affected by the news, so the class teacher/form tutor should contact their parents or carers by phone before you make the news known to the wider community.

Again, have some notes prepared ahead of time:

  • Be direct about what's happened and avoid using euphemisms like 'passed away' or 'passed on' to avoid confusion – "I have some very sad news that affects your child. Her friend Gemma's grandmother died yesterday. Gemma wanted your child to know."
  • Ask the parents to break the news, even for older children – "I'm sure that your child will be upset to hear about this, so it would be best if the news came from you so you can support them."
  • Let the parents know that you haven't told the wider school community yet and ask for their discretion until you've done so – "We've been in touch with Gemma's family and they're grieving right now. They need some time to absorb what's happened before we let the rest of the school know. We'd be grateful if you kept this upsetting news to yourself for now."
  • Tell the parents how their child can communicate with the bereaved child – "Gemma's parents said your child can call her tomorrow morning. Her number is..."

4. Contact the bereaved child's classmates/year group

These are the children who know the bereaved child personally and may even have met the person who's passed away. It's not necessary to call them individually, but do contact their families by email or post. Here's a template letter you can adapt:

5. Let the rest of the school community know

It's appropriate to use your standard method of whole-school communication (e.g. a newsletter) to notify the rest of the school about the death. As before, avoid using euphemisms. Be direct about what's happened and remember to only share details and contact information if permitted to do so by the family. 

The death of a pupil

1. Contact the pupil's family

The headteacher or other senior leader should make this difficult phone call.

It'll be useful to have some notes prepared ahead of time. For example:

  • Acknowledge what's happened – "I'm so sorry to hear that Anthony died yesterday."
    • Don't be afraid to ask how the death occurred – you need an understanding of what's happened so you can support your school community appropriately
  • Express support on behalf of the school – "I'm calling to let you know that we're here for you and to see if there's anything we can do to help."
  • Discuss how to share the news with the rest of the school community – "We'll need to let Anthony's classmates know what's happened. They'll be heartbroken about this, and we need to let them know that we'll be there to support them."

Take the following steps in line with what you’ve agreed with the family (for example, about how much information they’re happy for you to share and who with, and whether/how they wish to be contacted with condolences).

It is possible that they’ll ask you not to share details of how the death occurred or even news of the death altogether. If so, you’ll need to make a judgement call and find a balance between respecting the family’s wishes, and supporting your pupils and preventing harmful speculation. You may need to tell them respectfully that you believe your pupils need honesty in these circumstances, and explain what you’re going to share and why.

2. Notify staff

  • Contact those staff members who were closest to the pupil first. This is terrible news to have to share, so use your judgement to identify those staff members that will have the most difficult time hearing this and reach out to them by phone or video call
  • Contact the rest of your staff using whatever form of communication you'd normally use in the event of a major event, e.g. a phone tree or group chat app. Staff members will need some lead time to process the information and prepare themselves if children reach out to them for support

3. Contact the pupil's closest friends

These children are likely to be most affected by the news, so you or the class teacher/form tutor should contact their parents or carers by phone before you make the news known to the wider community.

Again, have some notes prepared ahead of time:

  • Be direct about what's happened and avoid using euphemisms like 'passed away' or 'passed on' to avoid confusion – "I have some very sad news that affects your child. Their good friend Anthony has died."
  • Ask the parents to break the news, even for older children – "I'm sure that your child will be very upset to hear about this, so it would be best if the news came from you so you can support them. We'll be posting some advice for parents about how to talk to children about death on our website shortly." (More on this below)
  • Let the parent know that you haven't told the wider school community yet and ask for their discretion until you've done so – "We've been in touch with Anthony's family and they're grieving right now. They need some time to absorb what's happened before we let the rest of the school know. We'd be grateful if you kept this upsetting news to yourself for now."

4. Contact the pupil's classmates/year group

Where you'd normally bring a class or year group together to inform them of the death of a classmate, you'll need to do things differently right now.

You want to control the flow of information to minimise the opportunity for rumours or speculation. The best way to do this is to share the news with all of these pupils at once:

  1. Write a letter to parents advising them of the death. Be direct and use simple language. Adapt our template:
  2. Post it to your school's website or to a page on whatever site your school uses for communication. Make sure this page can be password-protected
  3. Use your school's text alert system to notify parents that there's urgent news on the website. Provide a link and password information

5. Let the rest of the school community know

It's appropriate to use your standard method of whole-school communication (e.g. a newsletter) to notify the rest of the school about the death. As before, avoid using euphemisms. Be direct about what's happened and remember to only share details and contact information if permitted to do so by the family or if, in your judgement, circumstances warrant more details.

The death of a staff member

1. Contact the staff member's family

The headteacher or other senior leader should make this difficult phone call.

It'll be useful to have some notes prepared ahead of time. For example:

  • Acknowledge what's happened – "I'm so sorry to hear that Miss Smith died yesterday."
    • Don't be afraid to ask how the death occurred – you need an understanding of what's happened so you can support your school community appropriately
  • Express support on behalf of the school – "I'm calling to let you know that we're here for you and to see if there's anything we can do to help."
  • Discuss how to share the news with the rest of the school community – "We'll need to let our pupils know what's happened. They'll be heartbroken about this, and we need to let them know that we'll be there to support them."

Take the following steps in line with what you’ve agreed with the family (for example, about how much information they’re happy for you to share and who with, and whether/how they wish to be contacted with condolences).

It is possible that they’ll ask you not to share details of how the death occurred or even news of the death altogether. If so, you’ll need to make a judgement call and find a balance between respecting the family’s wishes, and supporting your pupils and preventing harmful speculation. You may need to tell them respectfully that you believe your pupils need honesty in these circumstances, and explain what you’re going to share and why.

2. Notify staff

  • First, contact those staff members who were closest to the person who passed away. This is terrible news to have to share, so use your judgement in identifying those staff members that will have the most difficult time hearing this and reach out to them by phone or video call
  • Contact the rest of your staff using whatever form of communication you'd normally use in the event of a major event, e.g. a phone tree or group chat app. Staff members will need some lead time to process the information and prepare themselves if children reach out to them for support

3. Contact those pupils who were closest to the staff member

For example, if this involves a TA that spent significant 1-to-1 time with a specific child, or a SENCO that had more regular contact with specific children, those children will be most affected by the news.

The headteacher or other senior member of staff should contact their parents or carers by phone before making the news known to the wider community.

Again, have some notes prepared ahead of time:

  • Be direct about what's happened and avoid using euphemisms like 'passed away' or 'passed on' to avoid confusion – "I have some very sad news that affects your child. Miss Smith, their TA, has died."
  • Ask the parents to break the news, even for older children – "I'm sure that your child will be very upset to hear about this, so it would be best if the news came from you so you can support them. We'll be posting some advice for parents about how to talk to children about death on our website shortly" (more on this below)
  • Let the parent know that you haven't told the wider school community yet and ask for their discretion until you've done so – "We've been in touch with Miss Smith's family and they're grieving right now. They need some time to absorb what's happened before we let the rest of the school know. We'd be grateful if you kept this upsetting news to yourself for now."

4. Contact the rest of the student body

Where you'd normally bring pupils together to inform them of the death of a teacher, you'll need to do things differently right now.

You want to control the flow of information to minimise the opportunity for rumours or speculation. The best way to do this is to share the news with all of these pupils at once:

  1. Write a letter to parents advising them of the death. Be direct and use simple language. Adapt our template:
  2. Post it to your school's website or to a page on whatever site your school uses for communication. Make sure this page can be password-protected
  3. Use your school's text alert system to notify parents that there's urgent news on the website. Provide a link and password information

For the death of a staff member who had limited contact with pupils, it's appropriate to use your standard method of whole-school communication (e.g. a newsletter) to notify the rest of the school. As before, avoid using euphemisms. Be direct about what's happened and remember to only share details and contact information if permitted to do so by the family or if, in your judgement, circumstances warrant more details.

Supporting grief from a distance

You may not be able to put your normal school bereavement strategy into action right now, but there's still plenty you can do to support grieving children. It's very similar to what you'd do under normal circumstances, but in a virtual space.

Supporting a pupil through the death of a family member

Stay in regular contact with the bereaved child

Appoint 1 or 2 people to liaise with the child. These could be members of the bereavement team or teachers that are close to the pupil.

Schedule regular points of contact during the week using whatever mode of communication is approved by your school. The frequency depends on the needs of the child. If it's a vulnerable child, also schedule regular contact with the parents or carers. 

The length of time you spend on these calls will depend on the age of the child but should mirror that set out in your normal bereavement procedures. We have tips on how to talk to bereaved children further on in this article. 

Provide a space for other children to share their grief and condolences

Even children who aren't directly affected will want to express their own sadness and provide support and encouragement for their bereaved classmate. You could:

  • Encourage classmates to make drawings or write letters and submit them to you so you can deliver them to the bereaved child
  • Encourage them to create a playlist of music for the bereaved child
  • Consider having older children set up an online fundraiser in memory of the deceased (with the family's permission)

Supporting pupils through the death of a classmate or staff member

Identify those pupils who require greater support

There'll be some children who grieve the death of a classmate or staff member harder than others.

Appoint 1 or 2 people to liaise with these children. These could be members of the bereavement team or teachers that are close to the pupil.

Schedule regular points of contact during the week using whatever mode of communication is approved by your school. The frequency depends on the needs of the child. If it's a vulnerable child, also schedule regular contact with the parents or carers. 

The length of time you spend on these calls will depend on the age of the child but should mirror that set out in your normal bereavement procedures. We have tips on how to talk to bereaved children further on in this article. 

Provide a space for children to share their grief 

Grief is communal, and sharing grief is one way that we come to terms with death. 

  • Encourage pupils to make drawings or write letters and submit them to you so you can deliver them to the bereaved family
  • With the family's permission, set up a memorial page online and encourage pupils to submit drawings, letters or pictures (make sure this is only accessible to your school community – you could perhaps create a password-protected page on your school website, or set up a 'Google Site' page with appropriate viewing permissions)
  • Encourage pupils to create a playlist of music that makes them think of the deceased or makes them feel better
  • Consider having older pupils set up an online fundraiser in memory of the deceased (with the family's permission)

Let pupils know how they can come to you for support

Your capacity for support will depend on your own school setting, but possibilities include:

  • Conference calling with small groups to talk about how pupils are affected by the death
  • Setting up a moderated message board for older children to talk about how they're feeling
  • Having a designated staff member available by phone at posted times for children to ask questions or talk about how they feel

Whatever method you choose to provide bereavement support remotely, be sure to follow the same safeguarding principles that apply to remote learning.

Talking about death and grieving

When you talk to bereaved children

  • Listen and validate – children often don't recognise their feelings as grief. Let them know that whatever they're feeling is normal and okay
  • Acknowledge their fears – children's fears, no matter how irrational, are real and we can't take them away. Just knowing that someone they trust is listening to them is helpful
  • Reassure, but only as much as you can do so honestly – for example, a child whose family member has died from COVID-19 will quite rationally be afraid of other family members dying. It's unhelpful to try to calm a child's fears by saying that won't happen when it already has, and it can diminish the child's trust in you. Rather, acknowledge the possibility but counter with facts about how rare this is
  • Check their understanding – children can be very literal, and what might seem obvious to us may not be so clear to them. As you talk to them, regularly check that they understand what you've said
  • Share your own feelings – it's okay to let children know that you're also sad and upset. It can be reassuring that what they're feeling is normal

If the bereaved child is struggling to express themselves

Grief is overwhelming at any age, and children may struggle to express what they're going through. You can get the conversation started by:

  • Sharing Lost for words – a free e-book of advice by grieving children for grieving children
  • Sharing 'Thunks on death' (about halfway down the page) – a set of cards designed to open discussion about death and grief
  • Completing memory books (see under the heading 'Resources for children and young people')

Supporting staff who are supporting bereaved pupils

Working with bereaved children is painful, and those staff members who step up to the plate will also need your support. Tracey Bosely of Child Bereavement UK gave us the following tips for managing staff who take on this important role:

  • Don't let them go at it alone – make sure more than one staff member is assigned to each bereaved child. Not only will this share the load, but it'll also ensure that all staff assigned to a child have someone to talk to without breaching confidentiality
  • Check in with them regularly – be proactive, and be the one reaching out. Staff may feel guilty about asking for your time right now
  • Be prepared to step in – tell them to step back if it becomes clear they're overwhelmed
  • Make bereavement training available – many organisations offer training for school staff, including:

Resources for parents

The NHS

Children and bereavement – includes lots of resources for parents and children, including helplines and tips for creating a memory box

Child Bereavement UK

Cruse Bereavement Care

Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families

  • On My Mind is a resource for children to learn how to support their own mental health and wellbeing. It stresses the important of self-care 

Further resources for schools

Winston's Wish 

Child Bereavement UK

Child Bereavement UK together with London Grid for Learning (LGfL):

Managing a sudden death in the school community – includes tips on managing social media and media relations

 

Sources

Winston’s Wish was the UK’s first childhood bereavement charity. They've been supporting bereaved children since 1992 and continue to lead the way in providing specialist child bereavement support services across the UK. This includes in-depth therapeutic support in individual, group and residential settings, as well as a freephone national helpline, training for professionals and specialist publications.

Child Bereavement UK helps children, parents and families to rebuild their lives when a child grieves or when a child dies. They support children and young people up to the age of 25 who are facing bereavement, and anyone affected by the death of a child of any age. They provide training to professionals in health and social care, education, and the voluntary and corporate sectors, equipping them to provide the best possible care to bereaved families.

More from The Key

Anxiety (2).jpg

Pupil mental health: deepening understanding

Are you looking to deepen your staff's understanding of mental health, including anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation? Safeguarding Training Centre has the resources you need.

TeachingandLearning.jpg

Evidence-led training courses that make it easy to upskill staff, anytime, anywhere.

CPD Toolkit is the most effective way to virtually deliver evidence-led training and support the professional development of your staff. Downloadable courses and online 5-minute summaries provide flexibility for training, whether staff are participating as skeleton staff in-school, via video call or individually at their own pace.

The Key has taken great care in publishing this article. However, some of the article's content and information may come from or link to third party sources whose quality, relevance, accuracy, completeness, currency and reliability we do not guarantee. Accordingly, we will not be held liable for any use of or reliance placed on this article's content or the links or downloads it provides. This article may contain information sourced from public sector bodies and licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.