When Death Impacts your School
The recent tragic death of a young primary school learner highlighted the need for schools to have measures in place to handle traumatic events before there’s a crisis.
In the event of a learner, or teacher, dying by suicide, due to an accident or illness, it is vital that schools know what to do and act swiftly to prevent increased trauma for the learners and staff. Any death in a school is difficult for learners to handle and often hard for teachers to cope with and explain. It is crucial that procedures are put in place before these events occur, says the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).
“We are never prepared for death and for many of us, talking about death whether as a result of suicide or a tragic accident, makes us uncomfortable”, says Janine Shamos. “There is also the belief that talking to children about death makes it worse but in our experience, this is vital in controlling and combating the misinformation and inevitable confusion a death brings.”
Death affects teachers, learners, parents and other staff and community members and it is very important that schools have policies in place that deal with issues of informing the school of the death, talking to parents and stakeholders, providing grief and trauma counselling to those who need it, whether to hold a memorial and how to handle funeral services, liaising with the family, and how to deal with media enquiries. “It is very difficult for teachers to give their learners the facts and remain unemotional in a crisis”, says Shamos, an ex-educator and counselor. “Teachers need to be trained on how to handle such issues and told that ‘being human’ is not a bad thing.”
Schools should have a ‘Crisis Team’ of 4 - 8 members made up of teachers, counselors, and parents who should all be aware of their roles in a crisis. Schools should also make sure they have a resource list of educational psychologists, social workers, trauma counsellors who they can call in the event of a tragedy.
SADAG says that learners and staff need to be informed of the death of a peer or teacher as soon as possible and given the facts of the death – not telling people the truth is dangerous and only leads to further trauma. “Do not announce the death over the PA system - inform learners in smaller groups. This makes it more personal and easier to learners to grieve properly.” SADAG also says that should the death occur during a holiday or over the weekend – inform the staff prior to them returning to school.
“It’s important to remember that we all react to tragedy differently and all have our own grief responses which are based on many factors including age, your relationship with the deceased and your previous experiences of death. Schools can mitigate much negative reactions and help facilitate healing and understanding through their prior planning and swift action.”