Chapter 1: Communication strategies
“I felt unable to keep up with anything except my own day-to-day tasks around my husband’s illness and death. I very much appreciated how the teacher stayed in touch with me. I did not have the strength or energy to coordinate or reach out to the school”. – Parent
Below are nine tips for speaking with a grieving person.
Click on the arrows to view each tip.
Refer to the person who is ill or has died by name whenever possible.
Express your condolences (e.g., “I’m very sorry to know that David is seriously ill”. Or “I’m so sad to learn that Manjit has died”.)
Don’t be afraid to use the words “died” or “death” rather than euphemisms, such as “passed away”.
Keep your communication simple and questions to a minimum.
If a death has occurred, ask what information they would like shared with students and staff (e.g., cause or location of death). Also ask about plans for a funeral or memorial service, and, in particular, whether or not staff and students may attend or participate.
Rather than rehearsing what to say next, focus on listening.
Keep in mind that grieving takes up a huge amount of energy. Parents (just like their children) may struggle to concentrate and remember details. In addition to reaching out to the parent(s) over the phone or in person, it can help to follow up with written communication in an email or text.
Offer whatever support you can and provide school contact information for yourself.
Ask if any additional supports or resources would be helpful (e.g., grief counsellors, community mental health workers, bereavement programs, or a crisis team). This is something that you should re-visit at any later contacts.
Words to use and words to avoid
Click on the switch buttons for examples of what to say and examples of what to avoid.
“I was sad to hear that your dad died”.
“I know how you feel” (even if you have experienced a similar death).
“I have a few memories of your brother. Would you like to hear them?” (Even if the student doesn’t want to hear them right now, let them know that if this ever changes, you’d be happy to share them later.)
Any statement that starts with “At least…” – e.g.:
“At least you have other siblings…”
“At least she didn’t suffer…”
“At least her suffering is over…”
“I’ve been thinking of you and your family a lot since ________ ‘s death”.
“This will make you stronger”.
“If you’d ever like to talk about your mom or what you are going through, you’re welcome to come to me. And it’s completely okay if you’d prefer not to talk about it as well”.
Any statements that suggest the student needs to “move on” or “get over it”. Any statements that suggest the student has grieved long enough.