Covid-19: Dealing with grief and supporting staff and pupils

Written by: Helen Frostick | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As the pandemic continues, supporting pupils and staff who have been affected by bereavement has become an even bigger consideration for schools. Helen Frostick advises

Even in normal times, many schools will experience a death in their community, whether it be a pupil, member of staff or a parent or family member of a pupil. And during the current pandemic, it is even more likely that bereavement will affect our pupils or staff.

Of course, there will be anxiety about the prospect of talking about death – not least because dealing with personal feelings can be incredibly difficult.

Death is difficult to deal with for all of us. However, research indicates that the key to preventing chronic post-traumatic difficulties is providing additional and appropriate support in the aftermath of such events (Qi et al, 2016).

And writing in Headteacher Update in November last year, Alison Penny from the Childhood Bereavement Network reminded us: “School is a key context for young people who are grieving the death of someone significant in their life. The death of a parent or sibling is often followed by many other changes at home, and school can provide support and continuity through these major upheavals and challenges. But if bereavement goes unacknowledged and unsupported, school can worsen bereaved pupils’ feelings of isolation and unhappiness.” (Penny, 2019)

So, in this article, I would like to offer some practical tips to help school leaders to speak about death with pupils and staff while at the same time managing their own feelings.

Outward signs

There will be a variety of responses to bereavement, as everyone reacts to grief differently. Some people need time to process their grief, whereas others will want to talk about it immediately. The following list is not exhaustive but gives you an idea of the kind of behaviours you may see in someone who has experienced a bereavement. It is important to be aware that these different reactions are normal:

  • Becoming overprotective and anxious about losing another person close to them.
  • Tension headaches.
  • Not wanting to visit places associated with the person who has died.
  • Becoming more detached or anxious.
  • Feeling fearful when faced with the unknown.
  • An increase or decrease in appetite or sleep.
  • Seeming on edge or hyper-vigilant.
  • Changes in mood, particularly anger.
  • Tearfulness and restlessness.
  • Difficulty concentrating.

Supporting staff

There is no short fix for dealing with grief. It is a natural process which people will go through. If you have a staff member who has been affected, remember:

  • Support systems in school are helpful, but support outside of school is important too.
  • Although it is preferable to talk to someone in person, there are many avenues for support including online counselling or advice and guidance (see further information).
  • Normal routines play an important role in dealing with grief, providing respite.
  • As people process loss they can become more irritable, so allow for this.
  • Encourage your colleague to make time to engage in activities they enjoy, particularly those which re-energise them.

Supporting pupils

It is understandable to feel anxious about talking to pupils about death. For primary school-aged pupils there are story books available which are very effective in laying the path for discussion in a more removed way.

I Will Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm (1988) is a book which prepares children for loss by focusing on the death of a much-loved pet. Water Bugs and Dragonflies: Explaining death to young children by Doris Stickney (2004) is also excellent for exploring the cycle of life while giving comfort and opportunities for discussion. It is also a good book to lend to parents to use at home.

Meanwhile, there are five basic principles for any interventions which can ensure the best outcomes when adopted by schools, their staff and the wider school community. These are:

  • Promoting a sense of safety.
  • Promoting a sense of self and community efficacy.
  • Promoting a feel of connectedness.
  • Promoting a sense of calm.
  • Instilling hope.

First, it is important to be a listening ear, creating a calm presence and acknowledging any concerns or worries. Second, support and inform – help the pupils understand that the thoughts and feelings they are experiencing are normal. Finally, help the pupils to identify their own unique ways of adapting and coping. They can be supported to think about specific things they can do when experiencing intense emotions, such as worry and sadness. Perhaps relaxation and distraction techniques, engaging in favourite hobbies or reading about favourite topics, exercising, or setting goals to look forward to. The following tips might be helpful when speaking to pupils:

  • Be calm and clear in giving information by sticking to the facts as you understand them.
  • Be yourself and relate to them openly.
  • Explain to the pupil/s that there is no one way to react to this news and that it is important to respect how each individual deals with it.
  • Be led by the pupil/s and their questions, thoughts and feelings.
  • Allow for silence.
  • Encourage the pupil/s to talk to people they feel most comfortable with and to get help from them in school at any time of the day.
  • The curriculum can offer opportunities to plan lessons to sensitively highlight issues around loss and grief.
  • Avoid using euphemisms such as “moved on” or “passed away”.
  • Avoid probing the pupils for details about how they are feeling.
  • Avoid using humour – even though it is well intentioned, it risks making the pupils feel as though the situation is not being taken seriously.
  • Avoid telling the mourner how he or she feels or should be feeling: “You must feel really angry.”

Headteacher wellbeing

As headteacher, be aware that you too will be emotional when supporting a colleague and acknowledge this. Be kind to yourself and allow yourself space and time to process your own emotions.

For some school leaders, their own personal experiences may make it more difficult to support someone else with loss – be open about this with your senior team.

Ultimately, to support others, headteachers and school leaders need to ensure that they are looking after themselves and their own emotional wellbeing (the same goes for school staff who are supporting a pupil).

It is draining to support pupils and the wider school community through grief and loss. It is important to access appropriate support from colleagues and line managers. Following difficult conversations there should be time to decompress and take time away from the situation.

Work/life balance is even more important at times of extreme challenge such as these. Just as advising others to engage in enjoyable hobbies and take exercise is important, it is critical that you follow your own advice. It allows for invaluable time to rebalance and gain emotional strength.

  • Helen Frostick is a National Leader of Education, educational consultant, inspector, public speaker and author. She recently retired from her role as headteacher of St Mary Magdalen’s Catholic Primary School in south London. Her main source for this article was Achieving for Children's Educational Psychology Service. To read her previous articles for Headteacher Update, visit

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