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Responding to Student Deaths

Recommendations for instructors and teaching assistants for supporting students through grief and mourning.

This resource is intended to support instructors and teaching assistants (TAs) as they engage with their students following the death of a Stanford student.

Classes in which the student was enrolled or departments in which they majored will be contacted directly for additional guidance. If you are the instructor or TA of a class in which a deceased student was enrolled and have not received specific guidance about how to proceed following the death of a student, please contact your respective dean’s office.

Attend to your own well-being

Practice self-care

Everyone experiences grief and loss differently: give yourself space to process, whether in a community or on your own. This is important for both your and your students' well-being.

Use Stanford resources

Make use of relevant university resources such as:

Clarify your role

Clarify your role for yourself and your students. You might say something like:

“As your instructor, I care about your well-being. I'm not a trained grief counselor. However, I can help connect you to resources for further support.”

This clarification may be especially important for younger, women-identified, non-binary, and/or racially underrepresented instructional staff, who may face more requests for support from students than their overrepresented peers. You do not need to be a therapist for your students; instead, connect them with existing resources

Acknowledge the death with students and your teaching team

Use email to communicate about your course

Duplicate emails that acknowledge a student’s death and list resources can add to students’ stress and trauma. They will already receive such emails from university leadership, so the primary benefit of an email from instructional staff following a student’s death is to communicate clearly about flexible options in the course (see below for ideas about flexibility to meet students’ needs). If you want to acknowledge a student’s death in writing, you can consult this email template to address a student’s death

Acknowledge the death in class or section

Students generally appreciate it when their instructors acknowledge current events that may be affecting them in the classroom; at the same time, keep in mind that some students may find it difficult or may not wish to participate in a discussion about a student’s death in class.

If you take a moment in class to verbally acknowledge the passing of a community member, you do not have to say the perfect thing. The following recommendations may be helpful in acknowledging a student’s passing: 

State your intention in acknowledging the death

For example, you might say “I want to acknowledge [student name]’s passing because I know it affects us all in different ways and I care about your well-being and your learning.”

Dr. Shashank Joshi, from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, offered these possible first 100 words following a student’s death.

Respect the privacy of the deceased

If the university has not made a statement about the death, it may be because leadership is waiting to discuss the announcement with the student’s family or for the go-ahead from local authorities such as the coroner. In a case like this, you can acknowledge the death and the fact that more information is not available at this time.

There are cases in which a student’s family members do not wish to disclose the cause of death publicly, particularly if a student died by suicide. Please avoid speculating or sharing any rumors beyond what the university has communicated.

Be mindful when discussing suicide

If the topic of suicide does arise, responsible suicide reporting guidelines advise against sharing too much detail.

Request a trained facilitator

If you would like a facilitator to visit your class or section and help the group process loss, contact the Graduate Life Office.

Consider offering time to speak individually

Consider announcing that you’ll stay after class for a few minutes to provide time for students to connect with you individually. This can help identify students who may be in need of referral for additional support.  

Consider community losses

Sometimes a loss in the broader community may warrant the need to process grief. There are guidelines and sample lesson plans available in the ACT to Sustain Learning Through Current Events resource.

Make all conversations optional

Students may have a range of responses and inclinations to engage in such a lesson while grieving; please make such an activity optional and allow students to opt out easily, without drawing attention to themselves (e.g., end the formal part of class early, allowing students to leave or remain for further conversation).

Support Teaching Assistants 

Coordinate with your teaching team to ensure a unified approach. If you are working with TAs, please be conscious of their needs and provide flexibility for them including redistributing responsibilities among the teaching team or requesting resources for an additional TA from your department. 

If you are a teaching assistant, consider suggesting possible course policy modifications to the primary instructor and requesting flexibility for yourself and fellow TAs. Consider this email template to suggest possible course modifications.

Arrange to meet students’ needs

Provide flexible options

Provide flexible options at the course level when possible, communicate about these options with the teaching team, and share these changes with the class, documenting them in a place where students can refer back to them (e.g., an updated syllabus or Canvas site).

As students’ cognitive capacity will likely be reduced following stress and trauma (Boals et al 2012), the flexible options below may help improve overall performance in the class and provide compassionate support. If these types of options already exist in your course, remind students about them. In either case, please be clear about timelines and expectations. If you need assistance deciding on appropriate course modifications, you can request a consultation with CTL. 

Here are some flexibility options you may consider:

  • Extensions on assignments
  • Options to revise and resubmit assignments
  • Dropping the lowest grade in a group of assignments
  • Additional review sessions for midterms and exams
  • Revised schedules to revisit class material at a later date or to eschew material not directly related to your core learning goals
  • Optional attendance on some days and alternative ways for students to make up the work, such as discussion posts or assignments submitted through Canvas
  • Options for community building in class (e.g., opening check-ins with an option to pass or the option to work with a partner on an activity)
  • Information on how to request an incomplete grade if a student doesn’t feel able to complete the coursework
  • A reminder that if a student has a documented condition that is exacerbated by the stress of a student's death, they should consult with the Office of Accessible Education.

Make use of Stanford resources

Prepare to discuss and respond to students’ well-being throughout their grieving process. The Red Folder provides guidelines on how to navigate difficult conversations with students:

Familiarize yourself with the Red Folder’s recommended points of contact to request help for a student. 

Learn more

Stanford CTL resources

Trade press and resources from other institutions

Works Cited

Boals, Adriel, and Jonathan B. Banks. "Effects of traumatic stress and perceived stress on everyday cognitive functioning." Cognition & Emotion 26.7 (2012): 1335-1343.

Coleman, Max E. “Mental Health in the College Classroom: Best Practices for Instructors.” Teaching Sociology, February 25, 2022, 0092055X221080433.

Harrison, Neil, Jacqueline Burke, and Ivan Clarke. “Risky Teaching: Developing a Trauma-Informed Pedagogy for Higher Education.” Teaching in Higher Education 0, no. 0 (June 30, 2020): 1–15.

Huston, Therese A. ; DiPietro. “13 In the Eye of the Storm: Students’ Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy.” To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development 25 (2007).