Chapter 2: Planning for collaboration with a grieving family

Collaboration strategies

teacher“Navigating the family’s needs for privacy with the student and staff’s needs for information was just so challenging”.  – Principal




The following strategies will help you in contacting and working with the family.  

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Obtain accurate informationRegardless of whether a death is anticipated or already occurred, as a Principal or Vice-principal, you are responsible for ensuring that accurate information is communicated to school staff, families, and students in a timely and sensitive manner. When a death has already occurred, you’ll need to first confirm it, which will involve speaking directly to a family member or to law enforcement officials. Then, when talking to the family, you’ll need to clarify and confirm what information they want shared with the school community.
Encourage open and honest communicationKeep in mind that there is generally a lack of well-informed, accessible knowledge about grief. There are many ideas and beliefs in our society about grief and grieving that can be harmful because they interfere with what is a natural human experience. This is particularly true when it comes to children’s grief. Many people don’t realize the importance of an open and honest acknowledgement of a death. It may be helpful if you respectfully share that this will help your students have a healthy grieving process. By providing this information to a family and then listening to their concerns and needs, you’ll be better able to strike an important balance between honouring their wishes and promoting a healthy grief response within your school.
Honour the family’s wishesFor a variety of reasons, a family may or may not be comfortable in accepting support and guidance from outside sources. While some family members may view your school’s involvement as supportive and valued, others may see it as an intrusion into private family life. In situations in which the family is reluctant to share information, including the cause of the death, take the time to sensitively communicate to them that students and staff will benefit from having honest information about this. Reassure the family that information-sharing can be limited as they wish, such as disclosing nothing beyond the cause of death. Remember that, ultimately, it is necessary to respect the family’s decisions about how much information they wish to share and what support they’d like to receive from the school.
Identify and work with the designated contact person

If there is a staff member who is or was particularly close to the person who is dying or has died, following your initial communication with the family, consider asking that individual to be the designated contact person*. If the family is agreeable, then this person will be responsible for ongoing communication between the school and family in a way that respects their wishes about information-sharing. The designated contact person can build a trusting relationship with the family; reduce the communication burden that can result when many people are in contact with them; and offer support to the family, including any siblings who may also be students at your school. It’s important to stay in close contact with your staff member to ensure that information is up-to-date and that they feel supported in this role.

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*
The designated contact person is responsible for ensuring clear communication between the family, including the student, and the school, which means collaborating with them about what information they want shared, when, and with whom. Ideally, this will be someone who knows the student or students well and can forge a good relationship with the parents. 

See also:For additional information, see The designated contact person in Module 1 – Chapter 4: High School Students; and Nine tips for speaking with a grieving person in Module 2 – Supporting Grieving Students, Chapter 1 – Communication strategies.