Cherries and willows- dealing with a death of a student

One of the most difficult parts of being a teacher has been coping with the death of one of my students. This can happen to any teacher but as teachers of children with profound and complex needs it’s something we may face more often than others.

In my seven years of teaching two of my students have passed away, one was partly expected but still terrible, the other was an awful surprise. One the first occasions I was informed over the weekend and was able to process the news in privacy which allowed me to support the staff and students more effectively, on the second occasion I arrived in work after a holiday to be told that the student had passed away over the holidays and the decision had been made not to tell me in part in attempt not to ‘ruin’ my holiday and partly because I was struggling with a difficult pregnancy at the time. Personally I much preferred finding out before arriving at school and I feel I was a far more effective in supporting the students and staff.

Small things can make a huge difference when a student passes away- the school contacted the parents of the students to offer our condolences and to ask if they would like myself and LSA to contact them and school enabled us too leave school and visit them to offer our condolences in person- an incredibly hard but important thing to do. Secondly the school contacted the parents of other students and sought advice about the best way to tell the class what had happened. Finally the school arranged for people to be available to talk to for both staff and students not just the day we came back but over the next few weeks.

Telling the class was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done- how do you explain to children with complex needs that a classmate isn’t coming back? I’m not sure whether they understood but we told them simply, over the next week we packed away the students things and together we selected photos and work to create a memory book to share together and with parents. It felt important to us that the students things didn’t just disappear and that their friends had time to explore the space they had left in our class.

Finally the school allowed myself and their LSA to attend both funerals and we planted two beautiful trees in our garden one pink flowering cherry and one willow to commemorate two lives that ended too soon. We often sat beneath them sharing stories, activities and relaxing together. Whilst many of the staff and students have moved on the trees remain and I’m sure they are still giving shade and enjoyment to many.

Finally I learnt the importance of looking after myself- trying to support others can only work if you support yourself, having lost two students within a year and struggling with a difficult and uncertain pregnancy I ended up going on maternity leave early- at the time I felt eaten up with guilt but now I look back I see that I was simply unable to cope with everything and give the level of care and attention my students needed and deserved.

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