Faculty & Staff Help
Addressing a Student Death in Your Class
Attend to Your Well-being
- People respond to loss in their own way. Feelings of shock, sadness, anger, disbelief, or even apathy are common responses to a death, both in the immediate aftermath of the weeks or months following
- The American Psychological Association provides tools for dealing with grief, but allow yourself time to process in ways that are helpful for you, whether it’s talking to a friend or counselor, participating in your hobbies or just giving yourself time and space.
- Benefit-eligible USM employees can utilize Employee Assistance Resources that provide counseling for you and your household. You can also find more information on the University HR website.
- Consider completing the Mental Health First Aid training to broaden your confidence in recognizing and supporting students and colleagues who may have mental health challenges. Training dates can be found on the CFD website.
Bringing the Loss into the Classroom
- After a student's death, USM follows a protocol in response. This may involve investigation by police given the circumstances, and notifications from the Dean of Students/Division of Student Affairs, the Provost Office, or University Police to those affected (e.g., parents, residential life, instructors). Please wait for official university communication to be released before reaching out to or broaching the topic with your students. This can prevent gossip and unneeded distress among our campus community. Additionally, use language consistent with these announcements concerning the cause of death to respect the privacy and desires of the family and any ongoing investigation.
- Review What to Say After a Student Dies by Chatherine Shea Sanger for some suggestions on how to approach a student death with your class.
Be Clear About Your Role
In times of a campus or community tragedy, fostering connection and community is paramount. Communicate your role in supporting students, but also know your limits to not over-commit yourself to serve as a resource or support for your students given your well-being and considering your other obligations.
- Some example language the Stanford Teaching Commons recommends educators to say may be:
“As your instructor, I care about your well-being. I'm not a trained counselor. However, I can help connect you to resources for further support.”
Consider Still Holding Class
- It may feel like you should cancel class to honor the loss. Unless instructed to do so, or other circumstances warrant canceling class, holding your class can be helpful as it allows other students to continue to have structure and routine and an overall sense of normalcy when other aspects of their lives may feel out of control.
- You can acknowledge the desire for students to want to cancel class via an email or Canvas announcement that conveys your empathy for the loss but acknowledges still planning to have class and provides some flexibility to not attend for students who may be too distressed to attend class and resources to support students’ well-being.
Acknowledge the Loss
The classroom, whether in person or virtual, is the only mandatory space all students enter at a university. As such, instructors play a pivotal role in helping foster community in the aftermath of a campus loss. Whether it is via an email Canvas announcement, or in class, you can acknowledge the loss to your class to facilitate a sense of community among students and communicate care and compassion for a shared loss.
- While you might not know what to say, just sharing your intention to acknowledge the loss to our campus community is important. This provides students with the opening to know it is okay to discuss this loss with you or in your class. Be sure to recognize people vary in the way they respond to tragic events and how this may impact their learning in your class.
- You can consider holding a moment of silence to honor the loss.
You may wish to facilitate discussion related to the event. Some helpful suggestions for discussing a crisis can be found here.
- Make any conversations related to the loss optional and easy to opt out of. You can acknowledge leaving time for this at the beginning of class, but reserve time for this after class so students can opt out (both physically and mentally) should they choose. You can offer other ways for students to check in such as completing an optional exit ticket to tell you how they are doing or offer individual meeting times for them to express how the loss may be affecting their learning in your class.
- While the university community may not have all the details surrounding the loss, focus on creating connection and shared support, and not sharing a lot of details or fishing for details on the incident.
- Try not to probe students who disclose being affected for details on the circumstances of the death or their relationship with the student who has died. This can reduce gossip spreading about the event or those involved.
- In the event of student death by suicide, choose your words carefully by not romanticizing (“They are at peace”; “They are in a better place”) death for other students who may be contemplating suicide or have personal values or opinions about death that conflict with these statements. Also, language that implies blame on the victim or anger (“What a selfish action”) when the death is considered a death by suicide, conveys normal feelings in response to such a loss but is not productive or helpful for others.
- Consider the best practices and recommendations for reporting on suicide as you broach this topic with your class.
Demonstrate Compassion by Accommodating Students’ Needs
Students’ attention and cognitive capacity are likely reduced after a crisis, loss, or trauma. Consider ways you can be flexible in your course assignments and deadlines to allow for this possible reduction of performance and show compassion for your students.
You might consider options such as:
Assignment deadline extensions
Dropping the lowest grade for an assignment group
Allowing for revision & resubmit
Giving more time/more frequent breaks for students in longer class sessions
Remind students of options for taking an incomplete or taking a withdrawal from a class
Supporting Students After a Campus Death
After experiencing a loss, people can have a range of emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioral reactions as symptoms of grief (Cleveland Clinic) that may change over time. Responses to loss also differ across people.
Some Common Signs of Grief
- Feeling more emotionally sensitive
- Mood swings
- Guilt, including survivor’s guilt
- Hopelessness and/or helplessness
- Yearning for the lost one
- Feeling weak
- Lethargy, tiredness, or fatigue
- Muscle aches and pains
- Changes in sleep (more, less, disturbed)
- Tightness in the chest
- Increased heart rate
- Lump in throat
- Reduced resistance to illness
- Short-term memory loss
- Increased distractibility
- Preoccupation with death
- Increase difficulty making decisions
- Suicidal thoughts
- Changes in dreaming (frequency and content)
- Avoidance of social activities and relationships
- Changes in activity (either increased or decreased)
- Reduced personal hygiene
- Neglecting one’s health (eating, exercise)
- Increased use of drugs, medications, or alcohol
- Acting out
Research by Bailey and colleagues (1999) found that reactions to death by suicide tend to be greater and include more feelings of stigma, responsibility, shame, rejection, and anger directed toward the person who died, than for individuals lost from natural causes, accidents, or natural disasters.