An Open Letter to Teachers Coping with Death in the Classroom

Let me start by saying I'm not a doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist or a grief counselor... but I've dealt with students passing away numerous times. This is a letter I never wanted or expected to write, but I have something to say to you...

Dear Teacher Coping with Death in the Classroom,

First, I'm sorry that you're reading this. I'm sorry to your student's family, to you, to your student's friends, to your school community, I'm just sorry. I know that this is probably one of the most painful things a teacher and school community can go through. Although I'm not a mental health professional, I want to tell you few things....

It's okay to not want to talk about it while at work.
Don't get me wrong, you will need to talk about it, but for me, there is a time and a place to talk about a student's death... I don't want to talk about it when any students are around or honestly with people at work who I'm not close with. In the past, I've politely asked my administration to let my colleagues know to not bring it up or speak with me about it while students are in the building. I know that my colleagues mean well in asking how I am doing, but I just can't bare to choke back the tears while standing in the hallway or cafeteria.

It's okay to not know how to explain it to your students.
When a student passes away, one of the first few thoughts you might have is, "How am I going to explain this to my class?"  Ask for the support of your administration, school psychologist or grief counselors within your district. Explaining death to any child is tough but it can be even harder when you're explaining it to students with disabilities... You don't have to do this alone!

Taking the student's things away/ down is the one of the hardest parts.
I remember standing in my classroom looking at student's personal belongings numerous times thinking, "What do I do with this?" "When do I take her name tag down?" "What do I do with his art projects?" etc. I felt like if I took these things down right away I wasn't remembering and honoring the student, but these thing were also a painful reminder to look at everyday. One time I had a student (who was non-verbal) bring me a name tag off the desk of a student who had passed away, just days prior, and just handed it to me.... probably trying to communicate, "Where's my friend? I miss my friend." And that, that about broke me.

Celebrating the student's life will help! 
Plant a tree, post their picture on an memorial wall, make a plaque, have a special ceremony, do something to celebrate the student's life! I promise that it will help you, the family and your school community.

As hard as it it, remember that every single day in the classroom matters! Do your best to bring joy and love into your students' lives! Spend a little extra time outside when it's warm and sunny, read an extra story to them, spend an extra 10 minutes during centers in the afternoon, give them a hug or a high five every day before they go home, and hang in there, my friend!

A Fellow Mourning Teacher