Bereavement at school

Many people survive cancer and the majority of the 1,600 children who are diagnosed with cancer in the UK each year will be successfully treated. However, teachers should be prepared for dealing with the issues that can arise if a pupil or member of staff dies.

Open discussions about illnesses like cancer can help give pupils the message that it's okay to talk about illness and loss. Our section on talking to children when an adult has cancer and our free booklet Preparing a child for loss may have some useful advice at this time.

When someone dies

When the death of someone with cancer directly affects a school, teachers have an essential role to play in supporting children through the grieving process. If a teacher or classmate dies, it's important that pupils are told as soon as possible, and given all the facts. If a close relative of a pupil dies, it is also important to tell the pupil’s immediate peers. If they don't have the correct information, rumours can start and children might use their imagination to fill in the gaps. For example, pupils need to be reminded that cancer is not contagious and that not everyone who has cancer will die.

Dealing with emotions

People who are affected by the death of someone at school are likely to experience a range of emotions. These may include sadness, anger, confusion and guilt. Try to help your pupils understand that it's normal to feel a variety of often conflicting emotions when someone dies. It’s likely that you’ll see changes in your pupils’ behaviour too. Children and young people will often express their feelings in actions rather than words.

It's important to try to maintain boundaries of acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour, but offer children the chance to talk about their feelings.

It's understandable that you might feel upset too. Try not to worry if children see you upset. This will show them that it is normal to have strong emotions at this time, and it may encourage them to discuss their own feelings. It isn't a sign of weakness to need support yourself and this may help you to know how to talk to your pupils. If you feel it is appropriate, you might want to explain that death is something we will encounter throughout our lives and that with time it becomes easier to cope with.

Remember, you don't have to deal with the situation alone. You might be able to turn to your colleagues for help and there are other sources of support and information available for you and your pupils when you're coping with a loss at school. You can talk to us for more information about the support that is available.

Our section on bereavement has information about coping with grief, and details of the support that is available. We also have a free booklet called After someone dies – coping with bereavement.

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