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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles: Implement Standards, Curriculum, and Assessment

Helping Your Students Cope with Tragic Loss
Sharon Pettey-Taylor

In these uncertain times, we routinely take in “local news reporting,” news which frequently includes senseless drive-by shootings, fatal hit and runs, random burglaries leading to homicide, victims of domestic and school violence, fires, accidents, and suicides. Alarming headlines are no longer the exclusive domain of urban, high crime areas.

And it is not unusual to have our students (or even ourselves) personally attached to an unexpected, tragic incident. Loss associated with natural causes or family members who have died honorably in military service, are usually more commonplace. For this reason, teachers everywhere are contemplating their role in comforting students experiencing grief.

Educational research has confirmed that student academic performance can be adversely affected when students suffer from “sad incidents” leading to depression. They have been observed as exhibiting health problems, poor attendance, excessive lateness, as well as low motivation and morale. As a result, data further informs us that grades become lower and drop-out rates steadily increase. Experts in the field recommend that we recognize these signs in grieving students by showing empathy and knowing when and how to make non-judgmental referrals.

The Professional Teaching Standards imply that we actively “establish a climate that promotes fairness and respect” in maintaining an effective learning environment--by encouraging compassionate intervention; helping to resolve student [inner] conflicts; and assisting collaboratively with families and colleagues on the school support team.

Consequently, we may then ask ourselves what are the appropriate words or steps when a student or support services in the school community request our help during this special “time of need.” We may also question our abilities to intervene and may even summarily remove ourselves from the problem by responding, “I’m an educator, not a social worker, school psychologist, or grief counselor.”

But there are some ways we can offer some immediate “words of comfort” (appropriate to grade level). Here are a few suggestions.

  • Reassuring our students that loss (or death) is a natural part of life–like all other living things, we will all die. It is not a result of punishment; in the case of natural causes, our bodies just simply wear out and, over time, stop functioning.
  • Expressing that when a young person dies, we feel especially sad–knowing we will dearly miss that friend or family member, feeling cheated by time itself. Remind them of the happy memories they had together–no matter how short.
  • Let them know it is only natural to feel extremely unhappy and that initially it deeply hurts–but as each day goes by, the pain will eventually lessen. Tell them not to pretend that they are not despondent and/or angry and to openly tell their family and friends how they truly feel; and to continue asking any questions that need to be answered. Sharing feelings with others who are also experiencing the same loss will help them to remember the goodness and joy this loved one gave to their lives.
  • From personal experience, you can let them know that their love and feelings for the person they lost will not change and does not end, even when the person dies. They will, however, remember the important events that have impacted their lives for the better--now and in the future.

The real work of successfully getting through the emotional pain of the grieving process will be facilitated by a crisis intervention team, most likely already in place by your school’s leadership/administration. They are well-trained and immediately available to help you navigate through this critical, sensitive stage of student bereavement counseling.


  • Standard for Creating and Maintaining Effective Environments for Student Learning. The Professional Teaching Standards. New Teacher Center at The University of California, Santa Cruz, 2004.

  • Google: Assisting Students Who Have Experienced Anxiety or
    Distress Following a Traumatic Experience or Incident by
    Carlos P. Zalaquett, Lic., M.A., Ph.D.

  • Guideline Publications – www.guidelinepub.com

Do you have a comment, question, or suggestion about this article? E-mail Sharon.



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