When a Staff Member Dies

Before I became a school counselor, I did Hospice work, counseling patients and families, training and supervising volunteers, and running workshops for counselors and teachers. It has come in handy, to say the least: in the space of thirteen years, our school had four students, two non-school-age siblings, four parents, and three staff members die. Of course, life being what it is, we’ve also had staff whose spouses, friends, parents, and other family members died, and students who have lost grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and pets. I plan to write about our experiences with death and grief in a number of different posts, but am going to start with dealing with the death of a staff member.  In a response to the great post   “Counseling for Grief and Loss” on School Counseling Matters, Julie asked:

“Any thoughts on the death of a teacher? I’ve worked with grief with students and families, but never with a faculty member. I’d like to be prepared in the event of such a tragedy.

I read that, sighed, and thought, “Oh, boy.” I knew I had to respond.

Carol was a beloved, no-nonsense, say-it-like-it-is paraprofessional who could get even the most recalcitrant student to do what they were supposed to.  She worked half time with special education students and half time in kindergarten, so all the kids knew her. She was extremely fit, a very fast walker. She was excited because she had just learned that she was to be a grandmother for the first time. She was a fixture, who had been around forever. And then she wasn’t.

In the following years, both Diane, who worked in library and the office, and Louise, who was one of our school secretaries, both fought, triumphed over, and finally succumbed to cancer. Diane was one of the most open-hearted and giving people I have ever met, who truly lived her spiritual beliefs. She was a mom with kids still at home. Louise was the guardian of the supplies and all things financial, an honest, salt-of-the-earth great-grandmother who remained the hardworking farm girl even as she worked into her eighth decade.  Both of these women modeled incredible strength and positivity day in and day out to the rest of us as they managed treatments, dealt with discomfort and setbacks, got good news and bad, kept the school running smoothly, and provided a loving foundation for their families. Diane and Louise died within several weeks of each other almost five years after Carol.

Carol’s death was a complete surprise that came in the thick of the school year. Diane and Louise’s illnesses allowed us an opportunity to start the grieving process before we lost them, and gave us time to show them how much they were treasured. Their deaths came in the summer.  Before Carol died, our school community had come together after the sudden death of a first grader and the 9/11 tragedy. In between Carol and Diane and Louise’s deaths, we grieved together, two years in a row, over the accidental death of one fourth grader and the long terminal illness of another fourth grader. By the time they died, we had gotten quite “good” at knowing what to do. It was still very, very hard.

Because of these differences some details of our responses were different, but they had several central features in common. Here are some things to consider:

1.  How will you let other school staff know about the death? If the death happens outside of the school day, make a plan for notifying the staff. In our school a few key people make most of the calls. The other counselor and I, in consultation with the principal, decide who will call whom. As school counselors, we make sure that the callers are comfortable with the task and also with the potential challenges of helping people who are distraught. We generally take on the role of calling the people we predict will have the most difficult time with the news. After all the calls are made, we debrief with the other callers and each other.

If the death happens within the school day, decisions should be made in conjunction with your administrator about how and when and who will be told. Our principals’ initial ideas about what to do have sometimes differed quite a bit from our position about what would be best for everyone in the school. Be prepared to advocate strongly for what you believe will be most helpful for your school community. You as a school counselor are probably the most well-versed person in the building about crisis, grief, and support. We were able to help our prinicpals (we had different ones in different years) understand our point of view, and they did a great job of managing the schedule, finding coverage for staff who need to go home, making contacts, and generally backing us up as we worked with the adults and children in our school. They were actually relieved to let us be the “experts” through the crisis as they took charge of the challenge of running the school in such difficult circumstances.

2.  How will you arrange your first gathering as a community in grief? When the death happens during the school day, students still have to be looked after and taught. “Community” will need to happen in small groups in the moments that are available.  If possible, have someone order lunch or treats and have them set up in the staff room. (PTA is a great resource, as are other schools in your district.)  See if the people who were closest to the person who died can have some extra support in their classrooms from other staff. Help teachers and administrators understand that it is okay right now not to be on top of your educational game. (This is a great day for extra recess, drawing time, board games, or movies related to the curriculum.) Ask the administrator to cancel afterschool meetings if at all possible.  Plan a brief after school  gathering to share further information and to let people know about supports and resources that are available. Offer the opportunity for people to share their own thoughts.  Encourage the administrator to let people leave school as soon as possible if they would like. Everyone is likely to be very tired.

When a death has happened outside of the school day, we have gone into school early and set up the staff room with flowers, food, a book display about grief, and art materials including white and colored paper, pens, markers, colored pencils, and a scrapbook. Staff members are invited to write and/or decorate a memory or a message and paste it in the scrapbook. We keep the scrapbook for a couple of months until it seems like everyone is finished looking at it, then share it with the family of our staff member who has died. The book display includes books that are easy to pick up and leaf through, such as those with motivational or supportive entries, poetry, and children’s books about grief. The children’s books are meant for the adults to read. I often find them the most helpful of all. My all-time favorite is Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley. It is a beautiful story of loss and how memories can help us heal. Other standbys are: Bear’s Last Journey by Udo Weigelt, and Tear Soup by Pat Schwiebert. For short, one-page support and meditations, I like: When a Friend Dies: A Book for Teens About Healing and Grieving by Marilyn E. Grootman, Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief by Martha Whitmore Hickman and A Time to Grieve: Meditations for Healing After the Death of a Loved One by Carol Staudacher.  If the death occurs during the summer, you can still set up the book display and scrapbook materials, and let staff know they are there. You can redisplay when school starts.

If you can only have one book on death and grief, get Badger's Parting Gifts

Great for adults as well as teens and older elementary students.

A great resource, with short, one-page entries. Also a thoughtful gift for someone who is grieving.

A kids' book, but wonderful for adults!

3.  How will you let the students and families know about the death? Depending on the situation, you may want to tell all or only some of the students. Almost all of our students knew Carol and had had interactions with her in the classroom, cafeteria, or at recess, so when she died, the other counselor and I went into all the classrooms to tell them. (We also did this when our students died.) I will write more about this in the near future, but basically, we told them what had happened, explaining it in a developmentally appropriate way, and offered a chance for the kids to share their own memories about her or someone else (or pet) they knew who had died. They also made pictures or cards that they could decide to keep or give to Carol’s family. We spent extra time in the classrooms where Carol worked. Since Diane and Louise died in the summer and because they worked in the office rather than in classrooms, we did not go into all the classes right away. We talked with kids about it in a more casual way and addressed it in the classrooms as part of our regular counseling classes. 

For all the deaths, we worked with the principal to compose a letter to families that explained that the person had died and (except in the summer) that the counselors had talked with the students in the classrooms. The letter also gave information about kids and grief, how families could get help if needed, and details about the funeral, memorial donations, etc.

4.  How will the school handle people wanting to attend the funeral? If the funeral is outside of the school day we often make plans to go to the funeral and/or visiting hours in groups. This is a nice way to offer mutual support and share and heal together through the grieving process. When Diane died there was limited parking available at the church, so we were able to arrange a school bus. We all met at school and rode (in style?) to the funeral together. 

When the funeral is during the school day, we find out who wants to go and begin our planning from there. We have been very lucky to have the support of other schools in our district, who freed up staff members to come to our school and provide coverage while we were gone. The high school released some of the juniors and seniors to come over and assist adults. (Our kids loved this!) The PTA also provided coverage.

5.  How will you commemorate your colleague? This will be specific to each person.  When Carol died, the scrapbook became a very important way for us to cry, laugh, and remember. When Diane and Louise died, a couple of staff members worked together to make bookmarks with both of their pictures for all of the staff members. I still see these poking out of teachers’ plan books and pencil baskets. Mine is in the drawer where I put my keys every day. On our first inservice day back to school we all wore hats like Louise and Diane had when they lost their hair, and painted our fingernails, because Diane always had the most beautifully manicured hands. We took a staff picture (still on display in the office) of everyone showing off their haberdashery and fancy fingers. The best way we have remembered Carol is by following the birth and growth of her granddaughter, who is now a third grader in our school. She loves to hear us talk about her grandmother, and we love seeing some of Carol’s personality traits shining through this little girl. (Note the say-it-like-it-is description above!) Louise’s family chose to have donations made toward extra-curricular scholarships for students at our school, and choosing and announcing the recipients as we thought Louise would, was a beautiful way to remember her.  Each year, books are purchased for our library in Diane’s memory. Our librarian always lets us know the titles of the books and displays them for us to take a look at.  These books all have a bookplate dedication to Diane.  For each of the three, we filled a staff room bulletin board with pictures of them. (This is a good reminder to take lots of pictures at school activities and staff events.) We also sent meals to all three families, which was not only helpful to them, but provided healing, remembrance, and a sense of purpose for us.

6.  How will you continue to offer support? It is important to keep in touch with the people who were closest to the staff member who died, as well as with those students and colleagues who are grieving other losses. How are the students who worked with the person who died? If it is a classroom teacher, I would suggest that there be an ongoing, regular system of supporting the class through their grieving process. (Thankfully, we have not had this situation. However, it similar to the situations we have had with supporting students and teachers through grieving and healing the loss of a classmate. I will write more about this soon.) How old was the person? How are the people of the same age doing? Please do not forget the person who is filling the job of the person who has died. This can be a lonely position.

Most importantly, take care of yourself. The first week, especially, is pretty relentless for the school counselor. I have found that just about the time the other staff are starting to feel a little better, I am getting pretty close to my limit. Call on your counseling colleagues in your district for help with your work and support for you personally. Recognize and honor your own grieving process. Cut yourself as much slack as possible. Just pile up that paperwork — most of it will wait anyway. Let your family know that dinners are going to be extremely simple fare, preferably prepared or fetched by them. Treat yourself to a walk, a long bath, a good book, anything that helps you relax and rejuvenate. Remind yourself of what an incredible gift your kindness and understanding is to your colleagues and students. Now, give that kindness and understanding to yourself too. You deserve it.

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7 responses

  1. Thank you for this email! It was very well written and very informative! There is a teacher in my district that is dying of cancer. I look forward to reading your follow-up posts about this! Thank you again!

    AnnMarie

  2. Thank you for posting about this. We had a 1st grade student die from leukemia my very 1st year as a School Counselor. My principal and I made a “crisis plan” to follow in case of situations like this which names who to call, what to do, and also a “statement” for every teacher to read to their class so that they all get the same info. I go into the class in which the child belonged to do some extra work, and some of the fellow counselors from the county come in to help. I carry this crisis plan with me between home and school so I always have it. It is unfortunate to have to deal with this type of situation, but much easier for everyone when the school has a plan. I think it was also comforting for the family.

  3. Great post! We’ve lost two staff members- one in 2008 and one just this past December 2011. The first was a complete surprise. (car accident) She was a fourth grade teacher. It was a difficult time, and I was so glad we had a team of school psychologists and social workers come to our school to assist with assessing students. The second was due to cancer and occurred just a few days before Christmas. We were able to do things for her leading up to her passing like making a small Christmas tree with ornaments to put in her bedroom and singing carols outside her bedroom window just one week prior to her passing. Your suggestions for crisis planning are right in line with the things we addressed during both situations.

  4. I’m so sorry for your losses. I’m glad that you had a good plan in place and lots of support. What a gift (to all involved) to sing for your colleague. She must have felt so loved! I hope you were (and are) able to take good care of yourself too. Thank you for all you do for your school community!
    Rebecca

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