Dealing with tragedy and loss - a guide for schools and teachers


When tragedy strikes, it can be devastating. Recently in the UK, many schools in the North of England had to deal with supporting students following the bomb that took so many lives at the Manchester Arena, wiping away lives of children and teenagers at the end of a pop concert. For us all, dealing with sudden, unexpected, and crushing loss like this can devastate lives in inconceivable ways. Such loss of life can really disrupt, but when such disruptions occur during important exam seasons, then it is difficult to focus minds and return to some picture of normalcy.

Beyond such public tragic events, as highlighted above, there are often other tragic events taking place in the lives of our students, which are less obvious, but still as devastating for the individuals involved. For example, the illness or loss of a close family member, a close family friend, even a family pet which has been part of a unit can all have a profound impact on an individual.

School environments can offer a great sense of belonging and community for individuals, offering a sense of escape from intense situations, along with offering a sense of normality. Some individuals need this sense of community, normality and escape, so getting the balance right can often be one of the greatest challenges.

1. Schools need to remember that the loss can affect staff members as well as students

A loss, or major tragic incident, can have a wide impact. Attentions can - quite rightly - focus upon our students, but the loss of a person can also impact of school staff, who may have met with individuals regularly, either in a teaching or teacher-parent capacity. It goes against the natural order of life, but when a student suddenly dies, it can be difficult for adults to come to terms with - this includes teachers. The school leader might not be the person who an individual wants to talk to for comfort, but school leaders can release other key staff who may be able to step in and offer support for their colleagues. Schools need to be flexible in this respect.

2. Acknowledge the sense of injustice

During incidents of personal tragedy or loss, we can all feel a great number of emotions including sadness, anger, anxiety, guilt, fear, denial, disbelief or confusion. It is important that all staff working with students acknowledge that these emotions are normal, and that they are part of being human. It would be abnormal if these emotions were absent, and no-one should be made to feel bad if they are feeling upset about such a disruption in their lives.

3. Support the supporters

Some individuals can take it upon themselves to support their friends or colleagues when they might be dealing with devastating loss. These close relationships are vital, but close friends may not be equipped with dealing with the situation they are trying to support. School leaders and teachers need to consider the wider circle of friends who are emotionally supporting each other, and ensure that they have someone who they can talk to in sharing the situation. This is probably easier to manage in smaller school (or primary) settings, but larger schools or colleges should encourage staff to share their observations of whom the circle of friends might be - who individuals get on with in class, probably beyond their normal circle of friends - to check that they are coping well in supporting each other.

4. Allow opportunities to talk

Grief is intensely personal and individuals will need to deal with such disruption in their own way. Allow opportunities to remember or celebrate the people who have died - it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom - and remembering happy times and memories will help people smile, share stories, and deal with the loss on a personal level. Circle time will work for some, and not for others. What is critical here is not to force people to undertake activities that they may not be ready for, or deal uncomfortable with. Just because a strategy may work for one group of students may not relate to another group of students. Some individuals will withdraw into themselves, but knowing that there is someone there if they want may be all that it takes to ease the situation for them.

5. Refer to formal policies and guidance

Formal policies and guidance documents within schools can sometimes feel very cold and bureaucratic - taking the ‘human’ element of tragedy away from the overall equation. Yet, a policy and guidance document can actually help direct and support school leaders, teachers and all school staff. Remember, the school is a community, and all school staff should be aware of policies and procedures which are in place to support them, as well as students. Policies should be written with reference to sources that deal with the impact of loss and tragedy on a regular basis

6. Be guided by those whose lives have been impacted by tragedy

I was in my late teens when I lost a good friend who had gone through school with me. As a group, my friends were devastated when the life-support machine was finally switched off, but I was taken aback by the resolve, courage and strength of the mother of my friend. Religion played a substantial part in her life, and she turned to her faith to get her through such a turbulent time in her life, including the funeral and burial. Even amongst feelings of unfairness and injustice, there are individuals who do call on greater powers to support them through those tough times. This should not be diminished at any level. Be guided by the beliefs, faith and communities that individuals may be part of outside the school environment. Dealing with tragedy or loss is an intimately personal internal experience. How one person deals with it will be different to another person. Recognise the differences, but observe signs where individuals are crying out for connection.

Just by carrying on with usual day-to-day activities, schools can do a huge amount to support pupils who are dealing with tragedy in their lives. It’s important not to necessarily be stoic and ignore events, but offering a sense of normality and continued routine can help distract and focus individuals during such difficult, tragic times. Schools offer the chance to play, laugh, sing, and generally just be a child without feeling guilty. Consideration also needs to be given about the age of your students, as children at different stages of development have different understandings of tragedy or death.

The world is a glorious and beautiful place, but sometimes darkness, grief and cruelty come along at times least expected. Ensuring children having someone they can trust to turn to - if and when they want - is critical, and schools are well placed to ensure they meet such challenges in a way that is supportive and caring for all members of the school community.


Additional Support resources:

The British Red Cross has launched a free educational resource for teachers to help young people come to terms with the bombing at the Manchester Arena on Monday evening.


Newsthink: Manchester attack will be sent to secondary schools today and is designed to help students age 11-19 share their feelings about the attack, consider how to respond in a crisis, and explore the needs of young people caught up in a similar incident.


British Red Cross staff and volunteers have been providing practical and emotional support to people affected by Monday’s attack.


The We love Manchester Emergency Fund, launched by Manchester City Council in partnership with the British Red Cross, has so far raised over £3 million to support people affected by the attack.


Mike Adamson, chief executive at the British Red Cross said:

“The people of Manchester have suffered a terrible tragedy and crises like this can be understandably difficult to explain and understand, particularly for children.

“We hope this resource will help teachers to help young people to talk about this tragic event and think about how we can respond to events like these with acts of humanity.�?


Using real life examples, the British Red Cross teaching resource provides a unique perspective on how individuals and communities prepare for, respond to and recover from similar attacks.


The resource will help students:


  • Share their feelings about the attack
  • Consider how to respond in a crisis
  • Explore the practical and emotional needs of people caught up in the incident
  • Gain insight into the role of the Red Cross in emergency response and recovery

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About @digicoled 447 Articles
Colin Hill - Founder, researcher and editor of ukedchat. Also a bit of a tech geek! Project management, design thinking, and metacognition.
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