Guidelines for staff in the event of a student’s death
1. Summary of the guidelines
Should you receive notice of the death of an Aalto student, contact your school’s manager of academic affairs or the university’s head of security and risk management to discuss the situation. If you are among the first at the site of a student’s death, call 112 (the emergency response centre) and follow the instructions they provide.
The death of a student is often a crisis for those in the immediate circle or community of the student. Staff members who knew the student well may also be distraught over the incident. It is important that the staff and student community receive support for dealing with the crisis. The manager of academic affairs is responsible for coordinating crisis support for students in the school of the deceased. In broader crisis situations, the coordination is the responsibility of the head of security and risk management. The party responsible for the management of the crisis consults with Aalto Student Services psychologists (who are in charge of implementing the measures for students who are dealing with the crisis) as well as with Aalto chaplains, who may also participate in the crisis work and organise a memorial service. The manager of academic affairs discusses support for staff with the school’s HR manager. Staff can receive support from their own supervisors, HR Services, occupational health and Aalto chaplains.
The manager of academic affairs for the school as well as your own supervisor (see the contact details for your school).
The head of security and risk management, Aalto University Security and Lobby Services, and the Aalto crisis group
2. Guidelines for the first staff to hear of a student fatality
When you are notified by a third party about a student’s death
- Write down the main points you receive and tell the informing party that Aalto will investigate the details of the matter and offer support to the student community.
- Contact your school’s manager of academic affairs. Relate the information you received. The manager of academic affairs is responsible for finding out details about the incident and for coordinating the overall crisis work within the school. The manager of academic affairs contacts the school’s HR manager, who determines whether there is a need to support staff, and if so, how to provide the support.
- Contact your supervisor. Discuss with your supervisor your own relation to the incident. The student’s death may also be distressing to you yourself. Remember that you can also talk about your feelings and reaction with occupational health.
If the student died at Aalto University and you are among the first at the site of the incident
- Call the emergency number 112 immediately and follow the instructions provided.
- If there were witnesses to the event, guide them to a separate space of their own and encourage them to support each other in dealing with the shock. Tell them you are arranging help and it is on its way.
- Contact your school’s manager of academic affairs and the university’s head of security and risk management. Tell them what happened and consult on how to proceed in the situation. The manager of academic affairs or the head of security and risk management has the task of organising the crisis work.
- Contact your supervisor. Discuss with your supervisor your own relation to the incident. As the student’s death may also be distressing to you, remember that you can also talk about your feelings with occupational health.
3. Guidelines for managers of academic affairs and persons delegated by them
When notified of the death of a student:
- Carefully write down the information you receive and tell the informing party that Aalto will investigate the details of the matter and offer support to the student community.
- Contact the head of security and risk management and assess the gravity of the situation. Consult with the Student Services psychologists about this assessment. The head of security and risk management will take responsibility for leading and coordinating the situation, if regarding it as within their own remit. Unless agreed otherwise, the psychologists will report the death to the Aalto chaplains.
- Begin investigating the incident in more detail and determining which parties are affected by the death.
- Discuss the situation with the dean and the HR manager (and departmental director), assess the impact of the incident on staff and the need for providing support to staff.
- With your school’s or the university’s communications staff, begin planning how to inform students and staff about the death.
- Contact Aalto’s Student Services psychology group. The psychology group will appoint from among themselves a psychologist in charge of the crisis. This person will begin planning with you organisation of crisis support measures to provide to the student community.
- Contact representatives of the deceased’s student community from the guilds and academic subject associations; discuss the situation and the needs of the student community with them.
- Contact the deceased’s next of kin and discuss with them their wishes regarding the communications of the death and any other subjects.
4. Communications to students and to staff regarding a student death
The school manager of academic affairs or the individual delegated by him/her is responsible for communications on the death of the student. The manager of academic affairs consults with the Aalto or the schools communications staff and keeps them apprised of communications-related matters as necessary.
The communications must respect the wishes of the next of kin of the deceased; they can decide what is communicated and to whom. Sensitive data (such as the health information and the cause of death) relating to the death are personal matters that may not be communicated without the permission of the next of kin. If the next of kin ask for the school’s view on how specifically or generally the incident should be reported within the school, it is good to point out that accurate and appropriate information about death can help the community to deal with the issue.
The following are examples of the groups who may be informed about a death, depending on the situation and with consideration for the wishes of the next of kin:
- Regarding members of staff, the most restrictive grouping would include only those who need to know about the death in order to perform their work tasks.
- More broadly among staff: staff of the programme, of the department or of the school.
- A small group of students, such as the student’s classmates in a course.
- All students in a programme, department or school.
- Possible stakeholders, such as the Aalto Student Union (AYY), a student guild or a subject association.
In communicating news of a death, it is important to tell when will students have a debriefing or sharing session to let out their feelings about the crisis, when will a possible memorial service be held, and where can students receive help for dealing with loss. If this information is not yet available, mention that the details on such events will be announced as soon as possible. Communications about the death must be given adequately before campus flags are set at half-mast (which is done by university porters), before a memorial table is set up (see ‘Additional information’ in section 7) or any other public displays are set up related to the fatality.
If a foreign student dies, the matter is reported also to the person in charge of the school’s international affairs. It must be ensured that the person who communicates with the student’s next of kin has sufficient proficiency in the relevant language.
5. Supporting the student community in the initial stage
The death of a student always affects those in the student’s near circle, in whom it begins an adjustment process that typically proceeds from shock, through a reactive stage and to a processing stage. Crisis help and community support should always be adapted appropriately to the current stage of the adjustment process.
Those close to the deceased typically have a shock reaction when they first hear news of the death. It is hard to believe and understand what has happened. Their reaction may include a denial of what occurred, the situation may seem unreal, or the person may seem unusually tranquil, as though the death had no effect.
In this stage, it is important to communicate to the student community that staff will tend to the situation, that students should look after their own basic needs. Also students should be provided with accurate information about the death.
You may save and distribute to students the guidelines below on the psychological effects of crisis (Finnish, English and Swedish translations available)
6. Crisis follow-up and organising a debriefing
The adjustment process is specific to the individual: factors that can have an impact include how close the individual felt to the deceased, the cause of death, how unexpected the death was, as well as their life situation and what kinds of crises or traumatic losses they have experienced in life.
A number of days may elapse after hearing of the death before the individual begins to understand what has occurred. The reaction stage then begins, and often brings with it strong feelings of sadness and the pain of loss. In the reaction stage, crisis support usually takes the form of a collective debriefing for students, participation in which is voluntary. For some people, a one-to-one meeting with a crisis counsellor may work better as a form of support compared to the collective debriefing or to working through the crisis with friends or other close ones.
Aalto’s student services psychologists together with a manager of academic affairs and other staff determine the way amount and forms of work needed for the situation. The psychologist in charge of the crisis is responsible for planning and implementing the collective debriefing together with a person of his or her choosing (another psychologist or an Aalto chaplain). They also help the manager of academic affairs or designates to make the practical arrangements for the debriefing (space requirements, communication guides).
What is the difference between the debriefing event and the memorial service?
Memorial services focus on the grieving process and remembering the deceased. Collective debriefings focus mainly on helping the deceased’s classmates to face the reality of death, to work through their own reactions (thoughts, feelings, sensations) and normalise them as well as prepare for reactions yet to come. Debriefings also begin and extend the provision of social support.
The memorial service may involve religious or other beliefs, if approved by the family of the deceased, but the crisis debriefing should always be free of religious or philosophical sectarianism, though such subjects may be dealt with if necessary and initiated by the students themselves.
7. Memorial services and remembering the deceased
If the student’s death has a broad impact on the Aalto community, a memorial service may be organised that is open to everyone. The communal sharing of grief can be empowering. It can give permission for life to go on. Death draws us near the basic questions of life; this should be kept in mind during the memorial service. The memorial service may be led by an Aalto chaplain, a representative of a different religious community, or a member of the university staff. Aalto chaplains with their experiences and expertise can also be of help if the memorial service is nonreligious in nature or if the deceased is of a different religious community. If there is a need to contact another religious group, the Aalto chaplains can provide information or someone in their network who can help.
Guidelines and outlines of possible content for the memorial service and remembering the deceased are given below.
Guidelines for memorial services and remembering the deceased:
- Notify the deceased’s next of kin about the memorial service and discuss with them any known last wishes of the deceased about it.
- Unless agreed otherwise, the service should be held within about a week of receiving news of the death.
- Participation in the memorial service is voluntary, and those who take part can decide for themselves whether to speak at the event or not. It is important that every participant be free to participate in their own way. Participants’ reactions, such as crying, reticence or opinions expressed, are confidential.
- The service may have a memorial table set up, and it may remain in place for some time after the ceremony. The memorial table may include a memorial book with short condolence messages for the next of kin. On the table there may also be a white tablecloth, a photo of the deceased with basic details (name, date of birth, date of death), an LED candle and flowers. You can find these supplies among the memorial materials stored by every school.
Possible content of the memorial service
- The facilitator of the memorial service gives a brief account of what occurred, then informs those present of the practices and procedures to follow in the memorial. If the service is held online, it is good to say something specific about online events, such as use of the microphone and the video connection.
- Appropriate music may be played at the start of the memorial service. Music gives participants a space to sort out their own thoughts. The candle may be lit on the memorial table.
- Someone may give a talk (a representative of staff, an Aalto chaplain or a student). A short poem or thought for reflection may be read, or a passage from the Bible or some other religious scripture. Prayer is also a possibility, if prayer is consistent with the beliefs of the deceased. In addition to these, a moment of silence may be observed (1 to 3 minutes).
- When convenient, the memorial service facilitator may remind participants that they may reminisce about and look at pictures of the deceased, or add an entry to the memorial book. The facilitator may also remind participants that they may send a collective condolences card (adressi in Finnish) to the next of kin. The memorial book or condolence card is sent to the next of kin at an agreed-upon time.
- At the close of the service, the need for additional support is evaluated and participants are given contact information for receiving it. The memorial service facilitator gives clear instructions to participants as to what time the service will end.
8. Links for support at Aalto and beyond
Student crisis support at Aalto
Aalto students may talk with an Aalto chaplain for support. Aalto chaplains are available regardless of the student’s faith or worldview. University chaplains – Student life – Into (aalto.fi)
Aalto’s Starting Point of Wellbeing (SPW) offers consultations and referrals to services for students who are unsure about what help or support is available. The SPW is approachable and you can drop by without an appointment.
The psychologists of student services offer crisis support to the student community, including events such as the collective crisis debriefing, and also individual talks with students as necessary.
Students can also receive support from the Finnish Student Health Service (FSHS): Home page - FSHS
Other providers of crisis support
Mieli Mental Health Finland has a crisis centre: SOS Crisis Centre
HelsinkiMissio has crisis consultation services (in Finnish and Swedish) for people under age 30. The consultation service is free and confidential.
9. Other matters to note: files and email; the student register
Files and email
- IT has a clear procedure regarding the processing of a deceased student’s files and email.
- Student email is processed confidentially as a general rule.
- Learning Services follows the practices it has concerning the retention of information about a student’s death in the student register.