Who does what when a student dies?

When I mention to colleagues – including those who have worked in higher education for many years – that, in my last role, my team and I were responsible for coordinating the university’s response to a student death, the look I get back is often one of surprise. Students die?

In my experience, it is not unusual for six or seven students to die each year in a university. Since universities are themselves the size of small towns and given the diversity of our student populations, we should perhaps not be surprised by the numbers.

Students who die do not always take their own lives. When confronted with the reality that students die, people leap to the idea that these will mostly be completed suicides. This was not my experience. Medical causes – undiagnosed heart conditions, meningitis, cancer, diabetic comas – and accidents accounted for at least 80% of the student deaths I’ve known.

There will be a part of your university, which has, sadly, acquired too much experience in handling these cases, perhaps exercising this role in a deliberately low-key manner. I urge you, whatever your own role, to find out more about where and how this is managed within your own university.

Family dynamics

These cases are complex. Families are messy at the best of times, more so at the worst of times. In managing one of these cases, first off, you are working closely with a family that is in shock, in despair, sometimes locked in anger. With each case you work on, you learn more about how to support these families. You get better at hearing what each family needs from you and from the university.

You also learn how to navigate family dynamics – perhaps double-doing everything in a case in which the student’s parents are divorced, checking in twice about what should happen with the student’s belongings, or about whether it’s okay for fellow students and university staff to attend the funeral.

More difficult is finding yourself dragged into playing a part in a raging family dispute – a dispute that, no doubt, long predated their recent bereavement but which has suddenly been fed new trauma, new fuel.

For example, you may be taken to one side to be told that, although everyone at university knows the international student who died was gay, including the student’s partner, this is something that mum and dad must not find out under any circumstances. Or you may meet a father with mental health issues who only wants to let off steam to you about how much he blames his ex-wife for the death of their son. Or a mother threatening to stage a sit-in in the vice-chancellor’s office if the university permits her ex-partner to remove their daughter’s television from her room in halls.

Empathy, clarity and boundaried practical support are what you are striving to provide to these families, while they spiral and struggle to process news they never saw coming, even in their nightmares, when their son or daughter headed off for fresher’s week.

The practicalities

However, the role goes way beyond family liaison. You’re also working with external agencies – with Public Health England, for example, to trace student and staff contacts following a case of meningitis, or with the relevant Embassy or High Commission if it was an international student who died. It won’t take long before you are on first name terms with everyone in your local coroner’s office.

You manage the logistics – thinking through how the student’s cohort should be informed and supported, how travel to the student’s home town for the funeral should be managed, how the student’s belongings should be returned to the family, and what might need to happen to support the flatmates who are still living, or perhaps refusing to live, in the flat where the student died. You notify the student’s funding body of the student’s death, so their funding can be frozen and student loans written off, and you’ll think through whether any repayment of fees to the family (perhaps pre-paid accommodation fees or an international student’s tuition fees) is in order.

You work with the student’s academic department – discussing support that academic colleagues might need following the loss of a student, considering how the student’s marked coursework might be returned to the family, and triggering a process for considering any basis for a posthumous degree award.

Throughout all of this, you are considering the PR implications and working with your colleagues in your university’s press office. Journalists will often be door-stopping the family (or sometimes the family, seeking answers, is contacting the journalists). Students who knew the deceased are also being contacted for statements. Newspapers are quick to reach for that stock marketing image of a University building, preferably one bearing a large university logo, as soon as news of the death goes public. Social media is, as ever, a minefield.

This is an area in which an effective protocol is essential; it needs to be clear who does what. I spent five years in my last role devising and revising our protocols for responding to a student death. You do not want five staff members from across the university contacting the student’s family, all assuming this is their responsibility. Worse, you do not want all five colleagues thinking (hoping?) that liaising with the family must be someone else’s job, leaving the family trying the university switchboard in search of support and advice.

The types of support a university can provide to a bereaved family and how these will be funded should be thought through in advance. Financial support – paying for travel and accommodation, refunding pre-paid fees, transporting the student’s belongings back home – can run into the thousands of pounds.

Providing this support is not only about doing the right thing, by helping a family in crisis; it makes good business sense too, as it helps to manage the risks that can arise from these cases. These cases require quick decision-making; they cannot be paused for internal disagreements about which budget should or shouldn’t pay, and why.

I have always been aware of a tension between my role in managing student wellbeing services and the task of coordinating the university’s response to a student death. I have lied about my job-title when talking to a bereaved family, saying I was ‘Head of Student Services’, rather than ‘Head of Student Support and Wellbeing’, after seeing the raised eyebrow of a bereaved father when I told him his point of contact with the university was someone charged with protecting his daughter’s wellbeing. However, the managers of student services are well-placed to manage such complex, and such fundamentally human, cases, considering, as they must, how all those affected by the loss – families, partners, friends, coursemates, flatmates, and teammates – are to be supported.

4 thoughts on “Who does what when a student dies?”

  1. Liz Morrish says:

    Sensitive and helpful. Thank you.

  2. A Alcorn says:

    As a second year student, I found out that a classmate had been murdered when I was contacted by a journalist for a statement. It was a terrible way to find out about a terrible and tragic event. I hope that universities are now acting faster to notify students in the same hall or course as a deceased student, to help spare them the same kind of experience and to proactively offer support.

  3. L Burge says:

    Excellent article Levi – thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  4. Jenny Shaw says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful and brave article, it is important to be able to talk about these things within the sector rather than pretending they don’t happen. Some of the issues are very familiar from an accommodation perspective and we’ve been through a similar learning curve over the last two years. Thanks again for sharing your experience.

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