As teachers, how do we deal with death in the classroom?


Okay, I get the fact that it's the end of the year and we are supposed to be happy and talking about things like vacation, sunshine, and time off.  However, life has dealt a little girl in my room a hand of cards that I feel the need to discuss with my fellow educators. 

After being in remission from cancer, the mother of a little girl in my classroom found out that her cancer had returned.  She had stage 4 brain cancer and there was no hope.  After being sent home, the mom had passed away a few weeks later.  I need to point out the fact that the grieving process for this child didn't begin when mom died, it began, I believe, when they found out that she wouldn't make it.  So during the time that she was sick, I found myself comforting and gently discussing how this child was when I saw her.  My heart broke for her every time I looked into her eyes.  I knew what she was going home to...she would tell me.  So this is why this post is being written.  I want all of us to pitch in on this one and offer suggestions and support for one another for these types of situations.

I actually took a class some time ago on how to deal with grieving children.  One of the first things that we learned was the fact that we need to explore our own personal encounters with grief.  Mine was when I was nine years old.  My grandmother who I loved dearly had passed away.  I was wearing my favorite purple dress trimmed in white lace.  I remember holding my mom's hand walking into the funeral home.  I was skipping and my sister looked at me and said, "You shouldn't be happy right now."  At that point, I stopped skipping and proceeded into the funeral home where I saw my grandmother in her casket.  You can imagine how I felt.  So, from that point on, death was not a celebration for me.  It's funny how vivid those memories are to me.  I can almost feel the warm July breeze on my face that blew that day.

With that being said, we need to consider that our children are coming from various walks of life, different religious beliefs, and ways of dealing with death.  The little girl in my room is a Mesonite Jew, so they didn't have a viewing or funeral, so I couldn't share my condolences with the family in the way that I'm used to.  So what did I do?  I found myself hugging her and talking with her privately, after asking if she was comfortable doing so.  She finally got to the point that she was initiating the conversations and would squeeze tighter and longer when I hugged her.  The kids in my classroom were aware that she had been going through something and were then told that her mom had passed away.  I didn't get into details.  They were SO supportive and as a group, we decided to make her cards.  Please know that after speaking to her father, I knew the basis of their religion, so the angels and crosses were placed appropriately by our students.  I never instructed my students in any way to put these things, I simply told them that they could make her a card.  So this is what they came up with.  Take a break from reading and have a look...


My eyes instantly filled with tears as I watched them turn these cards into me.  You could hear a pin drop in the room, other than the soothing, soft music that I had playing in the background.  They REALLY put their hearts and souls into these cards and that little girl was so grateful.  As a teacher, I put my own letter and these were then sent in the mail as a package addressed to her. 
Back to my grieving class.  Here is a list of Do's and Dont's that are suggested when helping bereaved people.  Please know that this is just a suggested list, and I do not intend on offending anyone by posting it.  You are completely allowed to agree or disagree with its content, but I found this helpful...

1. Do realize that grieving begins before death.
2. Do let your genuine caring and concern show.
3. Do be available to do small tasks which seem to be helpful.
4. Do allow/encourage them to express feelings.
5. Do encourage them to be patients with themselves, not to impose too many "shoulds."
6. Do encourage them to talk about the person who has died.
7. Do remember that the grief experience is different for each of us.  There is no "right" way to grieve.
8. Do remember that listening is helping.
1. Don't let your own sense of helplessness keep you from reaching out.
2. Don't say you know how they feel.
3. Don't tell them what they should do or feel.
4. Don't change the subject when they mention the deceased.
5. Don't avoid mentioning the deceased person yourself.
6. Don't try to find something positive about the person's death.
7. Don't impose your theories about how or why the person was sick or died.
8. Don't say they can always have another person in their lives to fill the void of their loss.
9. Don't suggest they should be grateful for what they have.
There are a great deal of activities that can be done with children who are grieving.  Here is a list of some that we discussed in my class.  Please feel free to message me and I can provide detailed instructions on how to do each of them! :)
*Create a Memory Box
*Scavenger Hunt (This encourages children to verbalize their grief.)
*Feelings Bingo
*Color Me Happy, Color Me Sad (This offers ways to express feelings and provide an opportunity for children to gain support for these feelings.)
*Feeling Mask (This allows them to express their feelings non-verbally.)
*Feeling Charades
As teachers, we are expected to do so much for our students.  I think that we can all say that our list of what we do as teachers is not one bound to curriculum and standards.  We, too, are dealt a hand of cards when we take on the job as an educator and sometimes that requires us to deal with situations that are difficult for us.  This particular experience shook the world of this little girl and that then trickled its way into the hearts of my other students, and of course myself.  I was then helping my entire class deal with this loss and the losses that they too have endured.  I found myself just listening and talking to them for quite some time.  We shared our experiences with one another and you could see them lighten a bit at the end.  It was as though they understood one another a little more.  Was I right or was I wrong for doing this?  I don't know.  I think some of you will see it one way, and others will understand.  Death is a hard topic to face, but it's a whole different dynamic in the classroom.  There are SO many resources for us as educators if something like this should arrive. I hope with all that I have in me that it doesn't, but we all know that we have no control over certain things.  Death is one.
I'm having issues with my links, so I had to paste the entire address for the following resources on this topic...sorry:
Here is where we all pitch in.  I would love for us to join together to make suggestions or share what we have done.  I would ultimately LOVE for this to be a post that we could come to for support in these horrible situations.  I know it's a sad topic to discuss, but is something that so many of us face with our students.  Thank you for having open minds and open hearts while reading this post.  I promise that my next post will be a lighter topic! :)
Hugs to all...


  1. There is a fabulous book titled "The Next Place" that talks about where our loved ones go. I used this book to help my children deal with their feelings when their aunt passed away unexpectedly. Not an easy conversation to have with children, but such an important one to have. Thoughts and prayers being sent to your little girl and her family.

    1. Thank you so much for your book suggestion and sharing your experience with us. It's definitely not an easy conversation to have, but you're right, it's something that needs to be discussed. Thank you so much for your thoughts and prayers!


  2. I am glad that you are talking about this. Many years ago one of my firsties lost her mom to cancer too. It was a very hard year as I watched what she went through during the months before her mom died. I still remember her mom coming to recess to watch her little girl. Her mother and I were the same age. This little girl is all grown up now. I am praying for your little girl and her family.

    1. I really debated on whether or not it was appropriate at the end of the year, but is there ever really a good time? Death happens...even on the last day of school for some families. It's so sad, but I think that we need to discuss this as educators and offer ways to help one another through it. Thank you so much for your comment. I really appreciate it!

  3. Thanks for posting, Joey. We were at Outdoor Lab (a 5-day program for all 6th graders in Jeffco). The first night at dinner, we were doing the announcements. The principal was standing next to me and, as I was doing my part, he collapsed- heart attack. All week, the kids wondered how he was and we shared what we knew. Unfortunately, he passed away the following Saturday. When I shared the news with them, they wanted to do something. I read aloud The 10 Good Things About Barney by Judith Viorst. We brainstormed 10 (plus quite a few more) good things about Mr. Jackson, compiling everyone's page into a book that I took to his Memorial Service. I was amazed how much they'd learned about him in, basically, the one half day we'd been up there. Wordy... sorry. Point is, kids are very compassionate and understand more than we give them credit sometimes.
    Desktop Learning Adventures

    1. Thank you for sharing, Pamela. I can't even imagine if that happened to me. I think the way you handled it was perfect. It allowed your students a chance to be "a part" of sharing their emotions and allowing them to contribute in the healing process, which I feel they want to do. You're so right...they are very compassionate and understanding. Thank you, again.

  4. What a beautiful post. I have had several children over the years where a parent was facing death. One of the worst was when I had a child of a soldier in Afghanistan. It seemed as if he was grieving all year, just waiting for a dreaded phone call. Thank you God, that it never came. Your post offers very valuable info and I hope that many will read it. Thank you for sharing!

    Teaching With Moxie

    1. Thank you, Diane. I'm sure the stress and anticipation of having a parent in a war is very much like grieving. You live in stress and separation at all times. Poor thing. Just think of how many kiddos deal with this feeling on a daily basis.

      So sad. Thank you for your comment!

  5. I would like to say thank you both for having the courage post this knowing that it may not be well received because death is such an uncomfortable topic for people to talk about as well as for the loving support that you extended to this child and her family as well later on to your other students as they reflected on their own losses. Sadly, my words of appreciation come from the perspective of a recently bereaved mother. Just over three months ago, my oldest son passed away suddenly after having suffered a bleed from an Arteriovenous malformation located just above his brain stem that we had not known about previously. My other son who is two years younger is obviously in shock and grieving the loss of his older brother just as I am grieving the loss of my son, but he is also grieving an identity loss as he comes to terms with the reality that he is now an only child and he is also reliving previous losses in his life such as when his father and I separated, the death of a grandparent and the death of a family pet. During these last three months, we have been blessed to have receiving amazing support from the school community and my surviving son's teacher is at the height of that list. Like you, she has opened her heart up to him and has made him feel safe enough that she is one of the few people besides myself and his bereavement counsellor that he will talk to about his grief. Like you, she has also had a series of conversations with other students in the class and they too created touching sympathy cards that they had obviously put their soul into to welcome my son back and try to lift his spirits as much as possible after the memorial service. In today's world of technology, anyone can look up a fact if they forget the details of what they had been taught in a particular class. It is the moments that don't exist in a book though that are the ones that we'll remember forever, that ultimately shape who we become as people, and have the greatest impact on the world. Dedicated, loving professionals like yourself and my son's teacher make an incredible difference and I don't need to see into the future to know that many of those children will end up being kinder and more loving people in their lives because of the examples that they are being shown now.
    ~ Melissa

    1. Oh, Melissa. My eyes are filled with tears as I finish reading your reply. I am sending you and your son a very long and loving hug! There are no words...only thank you for sharing and being so open to this post. I'm really glad that we can see a parent's perspective and how you feel about it. You are so's easy to look up a fact...but it's how we genuinely react and care out of pure love for one another that really counts. This post came from that exact love and care for my student and her brother in the classroom next to mine.

      I have two little girls and I have to say...I don't know what I would do in your situation. The love of a mother's heart is unmatched. I am SURE that your son that passed had enough time on this earth to make an impact in so many people's lives and hearts. He still is, just by you sharing this story with us! My husband lost his older brother. They were older, but his brother died in a tragic car accident at the age of 23. A few short years later, he lost his dad suddenly to unexpected leukemia. Even as a man, his heart aches for their losses...and mine does, as it does when I look at my husband. I know there are days that he would love to pick up the phone and call them, have them over, and share our little girl's joy and laughter with them. He actually just lost his K-9 that worked with for 2 1/2 years. He's an explosives detector for our state police. We were notified that his dog died suddenly and unexpectedly in his kennel at the state barracks, while my husband was healing from back surgery. He was much more than a pet. Yet another loss..

      I guess we all have a story and I am moved that you shared yours with us. Thank you so very much, Melissa.

      Love and hugs to you and your family.

  6. I can not tell you what an important post this is. Four years ago I had a student killed in a motorcycle accident at the end of April. We are a fairly small school and she had attended since preschool, I taught 4th grade at the time. It was a Saturday so I personally called all of my families to personally tell them the news. I spent all weekend searching for things to do and not do but it was almost impossible to find anything for elementary age students. Another teacher, in trying to help, came on that Sunday and removed everything from the room that was Alexis's and cleaned out her desk. I do not know if that was the right choice and the students reacted in mixed ways. Some were relieved to not have the reminders yet others were upset. I did purposefully leave three things for us to remove as a class, one being her lunch choice marker. We sat on the carpet together, after we had talked about the situation, and the last thing I did was to delete her marker and everyone said a silent goodbye. THe interesting thing was that for the next week, the marker kept reappearing each morning and I would delete it again. By the end of the week it became a joke between us because Alexis was quite the jokester and her safe place had always been school. I really felt that maybe she just wasn't ready to say goodbye:). But, on Monday of the next week it did not reappear and I think the students knew that it was time to move on.

    We also made a memory box and placed cards, pictures, etc.. in the box. Students from other classes were also allowed to put things in the box. What we learned through this process is that a tragedy brings out feelings of loss or memories for others, even if they did not know the student, the situation created other feelings of loss. We allowed everyone to feel and express what they needed to during this time. The memory box was a blessing in so many ways. It is amazing all of the things that you find of a students randomly around the room and this allowed a place to put these things. No one wanted to throw away anything even if it was just a math paper. The students would randomly take it down and look through it and remember her. But the most important person was her mother. Alexis's mom had Alexis at 14 and was a single mom with two daughters. The driver of the motorcycle was her father so that day she lost her father and daughter. She really struggled and she and i became very close as well as her little sister. She or Mia would randomly show up at my room and would grab the box to look through. Last year I had her little sister and at the end of the year I asked Mia if she wanted me to keep the box or if she wanted to take it home. She decided to take it home and we closed another chapter.

    Finally, the last thing that we did is that I looped with my students to the next grade. The reasoning was that if issues popped up I could deal with it. Things did come up especially in their writing. Many writing projects were focused on memories of Alexis or that day. Then when we had the year anniversary we released balloons together and planted flowers in a memory garden.

    Thank you for this post and I would love to see a site that deals with loss of all kinds and all ages. Our school has been plagued with several suicides in the last two years and one that was truly shocking and close to home. Because the student was so well known and had babysat for many teacher families, it was overwhelming for all. It really brought to the front loss and grieving again.

  7. I lost a student this school year after some surgery. My class was shocked into tears at the news when were told at school and although the counselors came to my class, no one seemed to know what to do. I expected the counselors to come in and DO something but they just stood there. I was almost lost it right there myself but then I said "Let's make cards". Then I just passed out the materials and put on some soft music, hugged the boys that were crying and tried like all get out to just keep my composure. Then the counselors just left. They were completely useless. How could they drop that bomb and then just leave me? I went to the funeral and wanted to give the cards to the student's parents but it just wasn't appropriate after someone fainted on the spot. So I still have them and now I don't know what to do with them. I might just take them to his grave because I think taking them to his parents might just be too painful.

    1. (Sigh...) This is a terribly difficult topic, but after reading your response to this post, I can only say that I think you did the absolute best that you could at the time. My heart just broke reading about the little boys crying...I could almost see them sitting at their desks. How your heart must have broken. I think that leaving the cards at his grave is truly perfect. I believe in my heart (and this is only my opinion), but that little boy will know that you left those cards, and he will know the care and love that went into making them. His parents will see them, so there's no need to physically hand it to them. It's sad that the counselors didn't help your kids. That is supposed to be their jobs...but perhaps they didn't know what to say either. (Who knows?) You sound like a wonderful soul...keep doing what you're doing. God bless you...

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