Chapter 3: After a student’s death

When death is unexpected


What the educator says
Sue Massaad, elementary school principal, talks about supporting young children following the unexpected death of a classmate.(3:22)Video transcript

“The whole staff was in complete shock when we were told about the accident. We had very little time to absorb the news before having to tell our students. We really struggled with how to tell them and support them when we could barely wrap our heads around the news ourselves”.  – Teacher

A death that is sudden or unexpected presents additional challenges for everyone involved since there is no time to prepare for the loss. In addition to all of the other intense feelings that can be a natural part of the grief experience, a significant amount of shock and disbelief tend to be experienced when there is a sudden death. 

If available, in these situations a crisis response team and/or a bereavement response plan should be utilized as a resource. Such resources can decrease the amount of decision-making required during a difficult time and can help to ensure a comprehensive and well-thought out response.  

There are many factors that will influence the grief response to this type of death, such as:

  • How the death occurred: suicide; homicide; drowning; sudden medical event (e.g., seizure).
  • Where the death occurred: at home; in hospital; at your school; elsewhere (e.g., traffic accident).
  • External personnel who may be involved: police; paramedics.
  • Stigmatization of the death in any way (e.g., the student was intoxicated at the time of an accident). 


Additional considerations

Click on each item below for more information.

If the death was stigmatized in any way

students often benefit from additional support to help them find the language to talk about the death and to find ways of working through and expressing their grief.

When death is unexpected

students may have increased concerns about their own safety and the safety of those around them and may require additional reassurances of safety. These feelings can become particularly heightened when a death is by homicide.

If other students were involved in the event

such as an automobile accident, additional support may need to be put into place to support their return to school and their ongoing grief process.

Click on each item on the left for more detail