7. Bereavement

The death of someone close can be shattering and can impact all facets of your life, including your job.

Everyone experiences grief differently: there is no ‘normal’ or ‘right’ way to grieve. You may find work a welcome distraction, or it may represent an insurmountable challenge. Your experience can also change over time. 

After a death, you may initially feel shocked, numb, guilty, angry, afraid and full of pain. This may develop into loneliness, depression and fear about the future. These feelings are not unnatural, or wrong. They are all normal reactions to what may be the most difficult experience of your life. Over time this pain should lessen. 

Taking Care of Yourself

Do

  • Remember to take care of yourself following a bereavement
  • Make sure you continue to eat properly
  • Try to get some rest (even if you can’t sleep). Speak to your GP about appropriate help and medication if you are concerned about not being able to sleep 
  • Talk about the person who has died and your relationship with them. This may be to your family, friends, a faith/spiritual advisor, your GP, a support organisation, or your colleagues at school
  • Give yourself time and permission to grieve, and seek help and support if you feel you need it

There can be enormous amounts of pressure on teachers to not take time off from work, but it is important that you only return to work when you feel able to do so. Students will be quick to pick up on a teacher who is pre-occupied, and while many will be sympathetic to what has happened, some may take this opportunity to cause disruption. 

Don’t

  • Keep your emotions bottled up
  • Think you are weak for needing help
  • Feel guilty if you are struggling to cope
  • Turn to drugs or alcohol – the relief will only be temporary

Notifying your school

It is important to contact your line manager as soon as you can after the death to inform them of your situation. You may be feeling numb and distressed at this time but it will help minimise your anxiety to know you have informed those you need to. You do not need to have all the answers about what you plan to do at this time, but it is helpful to start thinking and communicating about your needs. Ask if your school or local authority has a bereavement policy for staff.

Make sure you tell your line manager when and how you would next like to be contacted, and how much information you would like to be shared with your colleagues and the students (if appropriate). Keep in regular contact as best as you’re able. Keep them informed about time you may need off for the funeral and any religious or cultural rites, and your intentions regarding returning to school, plus any support you may need once you’re there. This will reduce your anxiety about your absence and your return to work, when the time comes. 

Time off

The Employment Rights Act 1996 gives an employee rights to have reasonable time off work to deal with an emergency, such as bereavement involving a dependant. This could be a spouse, partner, child, parent or grandchild or someone who depends on you for care. ‘Reasonable’ is not defined and will depend on the situation. An employer does not have to pay an employee for this time away from work but many employers will offer paid compassionate leave. Employers may offer an employee annual leave to supplement compassionate leave, but this may not be available to teachers outside the school holidays. 

There are certain exceptions of course, for example where mental health difficulties arise as a consequence of bereavement, or when female employees suffer a stillbirth, and specialist guidance should be sought in these circumstances. 

Returning to work

Every bereavement is different and you may feel able to return to work very swiftly, or you may need more time. Returning to work does not mean you won’t need support, so keep communication open with your line manager about how you are coping, if you need changes to your responsibilities or hours, or if you wish to access support services. 

You may find the full emotional impact of the death is not felt until sometime after, and special days such as anniversaries or birthdays may be particularly difficult. Again, keep communication with your line manager open about how your feelings change over time. 

Practical matters

Bereavement will frequently lead to changes in your personal circumstances. As part of discussions with your line manager, consider and discuss if you have a need for flexible working to accommodate any changes. Acas has guidance for employees and employers regarding requests for flexible working.

If you need practical or financial advice or support following a bereavement, you can consult Cruse Bereavement Care’s guide or contact the helpline in 0844 477 9400 (open Monday-Friday 9:30am-5pm). Other useful organisations are the Bereavement Advice Centre on 0800 634 9494, or the UK government bereavement helpline at the Department for Work and Pensions: 0345 606 0265. Education Support Partnership also run a 24-hour helpline for those in the education profession. Contact them on 08000 562 561. 

When a student is bereaved

A bereaved student in your class can have a significant impact not just on their own learning, but on the learning of others and on your sense of wellbeing and confidence as a teacher. The Cruse Bereavement Care website has a section dedicated to advice for teachers and other professionals working with bereaved children and young people. It includes advice on how you can help a student return to school, manage their behaviour, and talk about the deceased.

When a member of the school dies

Cruse also provides extensive guidance on how to prepare for and what to do in the event of the death of a student or staff member, including if the death occurs during school time.

Again, such circumstances can have a huge impact on the dynamic of a school and even the most confident teacher can feel helpless. These pages include guidance on preparing for such situations with an established bereavement and/or crisis policy. This can help boost staff confidence in supporting students and each other in what is a very difficult and sensitive time. 

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