Every school needs a bereavement policy

Written by: HTU | Published:

When a bereavement affects a pupil in your school, it is vital to act quickly and appropriately. Heather Butler, the author of a new book on the subject, offers crucial advice on how both staff and pupils can be supported at these difficult times

Years ago, at the end of a busy day, a parent asked me if Jessie* had been okay. I replied she’d been “quiet”, which summed up Jessie’s morose outlook on the world. The mother then informed me that Jessie’s father had just died. I gulped because I, as class teacher, had not even been told her father was ill. 

Wanting to now help Jessie through the next few months, I asked a friend who worked with bereaved children for help. She gave me “the grid”. It had time scales in the first column and likely behaviours and feelings bereaved children might show in the others. Here, for the first time, I saw an outline of the bereavement process, the developmental issues to be considered and support I could offer. 

‘The grid” was in use a few years later. By now I worked for a different head. Walking through the school gates one morning, she was waiting for me. Sam’s aunt had died. The police were involved. A tight-knit community (including other children in my class) had witnessed events. 

She had arranged for an education psychologist to chat to me on the phone before I faced the day. I remember feeling equipped and valued and knowing what to do. As a class we talked about what had happened and how we felt about it. Those who wanted to made cards for their bereaved friend.

The second head liked policies; they helped her/us think through issues before they happened. A bereavement policy would have been a guiding framework rather than a prescriptive document. Every death has unique circumstances but the policy brings order, especially with sudden or multiple deaths, or with traumatic circumstances.

There would be a section on breaking sad news to staff, pupils and families. Finding factual information has to be a priority; assumptions or repeated rumours often escalate distress. 

It is essential that all staff are informed as soon as possible, preferably before pupils. Identify how this would ideally be done and by whom. Remember part-time and peripatetic staff as well. The staff team needs to be united and space should be given to anyone who is badly affected by the news. Consider how their classes might be covered. 

Pupils, also, should be told as soon as possible, preferably in familiar groups by someone they know. 

This is far better than during a large school assembly. Staff may need guidance on words to use, avoiding euphemisms such as “gone to sleep” or “gone away”. Children can cope with the words “died” and “death”. Also decide on a suitable place in school for pupils who need space to go to and who might be appropriate to support them.

If the family agree, a letter home on the same day helps; thinking about this beforehand is helpful as it is often difficult to find the right words when emotions and shock are running high. 

Mention of supporting agencies, such as Child Bereavement UK, should be included in the letter, as well as facts and how the school is handling the bereavement. 

Any policy should also identify expertise within the school team and how they can be used. Decide who will communicate with the families directly involved and if the press are involved, who will liaise with them. Those identified ideally need training; think how that will happen.

Supporting bereaved pupils will be very stressful for staff. Include a list of outside agencies and people at your local authority. Plan for informal mutual support, for example in the staffroom at the end of the school day, to give staff an opportunity to share feelings and reactions. They need to be reassured that:

  • Feeling you need support is not professional incompetence but recognition that everyone needs help sometimes.
  • Feelings about previous loses may be stirred up. Never be afraid to say so if that does happen. It is not a sign of weakness, just recognising your limits.
  • It is normal and okay to be emotionally affected and for children to see this; but feelings need to be contained.
  • However:
  • Getting over-involved is not helpful.
  • Don’t let the carer in you take over; maintain professional boundaries.
  • Be realistic in the amount of time you offer – a once a week chat is better than “at any time”, as this latter promise cannot necessarily be kept.

A policy also needs to say how pupils who may experience PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) will be identified and know who can help. It will also reference how a pupil will be remembered and how his/her life celebrated. Although difficult to plan in advance, it is useful to have thought this through beforehand.

Regarding the funeral, as with all things, it is essential to sound out and follow the family’s wishes. The family may well welcome involvement of the school community but equally, may wish to keep it private. 

Think about practicalities such as staff cover and transport. For some schools, in some circumstances, it is appropriate to close; for others, it is not. Clear guidance on this in the policy will be helpful. Also decide whether or not flowers will be sent and/or a collection made and how cultural and religious implications will be accommodated. Finally, consider whether to invest time in preparing children for a bereavement before it happens.

I write this article having just published the book Helping Children Think About Bereavement. I piloted the four lessons with my year 4 class last year. The parents were very positive about what we did. By the end of the four lessons, my class had strategies to help them understand some of the feelings associated with bereavement and loss (not just death), how they could help each other and also themselves. They knew that everyone reacts differently when someone is bereaved and had been given permission to be honest about their own feelings. 

A few weeks after the pilot, one of the parents unexpectedly died. The investment we had made became the foundation for our discussion about what had happened. We had a starting point and children had the emotional literacy to express themselves and how they were feeling. 

I wish I had offered better support when Jessie’s father died all those years ago. I am thankful that the head I worked for next time it happened had a clear idea of how to support both me and the children. A school bereavement policy does the same and would mean that even if she had not been there, I would have had somewhere to turn for advice. 

  • Heather Butler is the author of Helping Children Think About Bereavement. She still teaches part time while also writing children’s fiction and leading whole-school story-writing workshops.

Further information

  • Helping Children Think About Bereavement: A differentiated story and activities to help children age 5-11 deal with loss has been written by Heather Butler with Child Bereavement UK and has been published by Routledge (ISBN 978-0-415-53685-1).
  • Child Bereavement UK supports families and educates professionals when a child of any age dies or is dying, or when a child is facing bereavement. Visit www.childbereavementuk.org or email enquiries@childbereavementuk.org

*Events in the article above are real, but the children’s names have been changed.

 

  • For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.


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