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Do’s and Don’ts for Talking with Students

Most people have not received training on how to support people who are grieving. However, many students experience loss and sometimes we may not be aware of it. Conversations about death are difficult because they bring up hard feelings, and we may feel that we do not have all of the answers for children. This is a quick guide for educators. Please remember that the goal is not to take students’ pain away but to give them an opportunity to express themselves and to share information about the death in the school community.

Keep in Mind:

  • Do not assume that everyone who has been through the emergency is traumatized.
  • Do not make assumptions about what students and staff have experienced during the incident or are currently experiencing. People vary in their experiences with grief.
  • Do not assume that all students and staff members want or need to talk to you. Being physically present in a supportive and calm way helps people cope. 
  • Do not “debrief” by asking for details of what happened. 
  • If you cannot answer a question, say so and then follow up to learn the facts.
  • Do not patronize students by focusing on the individual’s weaknesses, helplessness, disability, etc. Focus instead on what the individual has done to contribute to their well-being and to others.
  • Many student reactions to grief are acute and understandable. Do not pathologize by using terms like “symptoms” or “conditions” or “disorder”.


What to Say to Someone who is Grieving

Some people fear that by bringing up the topic of death, they will upset the person who is grieving. Remember that it is the death of their loved one that causes the pain. By asking people how they are doing, you make them feel seen and cared for. 

Be okay with some silence and accept that the person may cry and be in pain. Listen more and talk less. Use open-ended questions. Affirm what you heard the person say to you. Remember to ask another professional for help if you need support.

Unhelpful StatementsInstead Try...
“I know what you are going through. I know how you feel.”

Everyone’s experience of grief and the circumstances surrounding it varies.
“It sounds like this is a really hard time and as if you are saying you may be feeling...” Or try: “I’m here for you if you want to talk.”
“You need to be strong right now.”

Grieving people, especially children, are already carrying an emotional weight and this holds them back from asking for help.
“How are you doing? How is your family?”
“Yes, and my parents/grandparents died recently.”

This can leave people feeling that their loss is not as profound in this moment.
“I am so sorry for your loss. I am here to listen if you want to talk.” Or Try: “It is such a tough thing to go through something like this. I appreciate you sharing this with me.”
“Everything is going to be alright” or “At Least they are not suffering” or “It will get better in time.”

This can minimize the person’s experience and how they feel in the moment.
“It’s common to have strong feelings when someone dies. Can you tell me how you are doing?”
Avoid any references to religion.Affirm the person’s expression of grief.


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