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Dealing with the death of a student

This guideline deals with the measures to be taken at the university after the death of a student.      

  • When you learn of a death, do not panic. Read this guideline and discuss the matter with your supervisor.      
  • This guideline provides you with information on dealing with student death and grief in the university community.

1 Introduction 

This guideline is intended for use by the whole Aalto University staff (teachers and service staff) when dealing with the death of a student in the university community.

When you learn of a death, do not panic. Trust your common sense and reason. Read this guideline and discuss the matter with your supervisor. This guideline provides you with information on dealing with student death and grief and related measures at the university.

2 Dealing with death of student

2.1 When notified of the death of a student:

  • Express sympathy to the notifier if s/he is affected by the event.
  • Ask what happened and verify the information. Listen carefully and write down the key points.
  • Let the notifier take his or her time.
  • Ask about the help he or she has already got and tell the him or her about the help available at the university (occupational health service, study psychologists and university chaplains).
  • Tell the person that the university contact person in cases of student death is the manager of academic affairs and that you will be relating the discussion you have had with him or her to the manager of academic affairs.
  • Check the name and contact details of the notifier once more.
  • Inform the notifier of the Aalto University practices in these types of cases: communicating the matter, commemoration and setting flags at half-staff.
  • The university respects the wishes of the immediate family.
  • It is essential that the death be communicated in a uniform and open manner, particularly to the students most affected by it.  
  • Possible days for flying flags at half-staff: date of death, date of funeral or both on the premises of the school of the deceased student.  
  • Communicate the information you have gained from the notifier to the manager of academic affairs.  

2.2 Dealing with a case of sudden death on university premises

  • Usher those who witnessed the event into a suitable common space and ask them to wait while you arrange for additional help.
  • Contact the manager of academic affairs and tell him or her about what happened.  
  • You can ask the university chaplain or study psychologist to join in.  
  • Return to the group, state what happened, to whom and if possible, why.
  • Ask what those present have seen or heard.
  • Ask about their wishes at the moment.
  • Find out about the need for immediate support and tell them the place to go for it (e.g. Aalto university chaplain, study psychologists).
  • Encourage the group members to support each other.
  • Agree on a meeting time for further debriefing among the group; arrange it for the following day or for the day after at the latest. Ask study psychologist or university chaplain to attend the meeting.

3 Communicating the death 

Communicating the death of a student is primarily the responsibility of the manager of academic affairs of the school. The person first notified of the death contacts the manager of academic affairs. The matter must be communicated in accordance with the wishes of the immediate family: they have the right to decide who is told and what. If the immediate family request that the number of people notified of the event be kept to a minimum, it is worth pointing out that correct information on the death usually helps the community to deal with the matter. Sensitive information related to the death (e.g. cause of death and medical history) are private affairs that should not be communicated to third parties without permission granted by the immediate family.

Depending on the situation and the wishes of the immediate family, the matter may be communicated to e.g.

  • staff: the unit/school/university of the student
  • students
  • possible interest groups, such as guild or subject-specific organisation 

Sufficient communication should be ensured before setting flags at half-staff, setting out a memorial table, or taking any other visible action related to the death.  

As necessary, the manager of academic affairs may delegate responsibilities of communication and organisation of the commemoration and flying flags at half-staff to his or her employees.  

When the deceased is a foreign citizen, the incident is also communicated to the person in charge of the international affairs of the school. In such cases, it should be ensured that only people with sufficient language skills communicate with the immediate family.

4 Commemoration

The deceased student may be commemorated in an event organised for the students and staff jointly. The immediate family of the student should be informed of this event. The commemoration may be led by a university chaplain, a representative of another religious community, or a member of staff. It is important to respect the conviction of the deceased. If contacts to other religious groups are needed, the university chaplain may be consulted and his/her networks used. 

Commemoration:  

  • Shared grieving of the loss gives strength and a permission to move on.
  • Death always reminds us of the most essential questions, which should be kept in mind in the commemoration.
  • The event should be held within a week of receiving notification of the death.
  • Attending the commemoration is voluntary.
  • Attendees may either speak at the event or remain quiet; it is important to let everyone deal in their own way.
  • The event is open for everyone. Any reactions of those present, such as crying, not speaking or opinions presented must be kept confidential. 

Possible contents of a commemoration:

  • Appropriate music (recorded/live) may be played to start the event. The music also gives the attendees room for organising their thoughts.
  • The leader of the commemoration reports the incident briefly.
  • The leader goes though the procedure and practices to be followed at the event.
  • A personal memorial candle may be lit on the memorial table.
  • Someone may give a speech (representative of the staff, university chaplain or student)
  • Reading a poem, thought, extract from the Bible or sacred texts of another religion is possible. Praying is also possible if appropriate for the conviction of the deceased.
  • Having a moment of silence (1–3 min.) is possible.
  • The participants may remember the deceased, collect a memorial book, look at photos.
  • The attendees may remember the immediate family by, e.g. sending them a condolence message.
  • At the end of the commemoration, the need for support measures is looked into, and the attendees are given contact details for further help.
  • The leader of the event clearly notifies the participants when the event has ended. 

4.1 Memorial table and related equipment: grief box

A memorial table may be set up for the commemoration and it may also be present for a longer time. The table may have a white cloth, photo of the deceased and basic details (name, date of birth, date of death), a candle and flowers. This equipment is found in the grief box is each school (more information from the university chaplains).

The memorial table may include for instance, a memorial book with brief messages of sympathy to the immediate family.  The memorial book or condolence message are sent to the immediate family after an agreed-upon time.

5 Practicalities

Files and e-mails

  • IT has a clear policy on the e-mails and files of the deceased student. 
  • As a rule, the emails of the student are treated as confidential. 

Student register  

  • The Learning services records the information of the student’s death to the student register in accordance with their own practices. 

6 Contact details

The student health service may provide crisis help for sudden upsetting events at the university, such as deaths. Study psychologists can help the school persons responsible in debriefing duties related to the death.

If you have any questions related to cases of student death, you can also turn to the Aalto University chaplains. The Aalto University chaplains are available for confidential discussions with all members of the university community and may assist, as necessary, in organising commemorations

This service is provided by:

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