Addressing the Loss of a School Community Member
Making Sure All Students Are Informed
Another important consideration is making sure that all students have been informed about the death. On any given day, some students will not be at school. They may be out sick, away on a field trip for the day, or on a longer class trip to science camp or a music festival. How will students in each of these situations hear the information?
It is difficult for students to come back to a school community that has experienced something this profound when they do not feel included. This can lead to anxiety, misunderstandings, and a sense of isolation.
Although each situation is different, the following are some possible solutions:
- Schools might call or send e-mails to the parents of students who are not in school that day to provide the necessary information, as well as suggestions about talking with their children.
- A school administrator might plan to meet a class returning from a field trip to share the news with them. A call to the teacher's cell phone before they return will allow him or her to make sure students stay together on their return so they can hear the announcement and receive support.
- Teachers at camps or festivals that involve overnight trips could be contacted by the school. Copies of the announcement about the death, as well as supportive material for student discussions, could be e-mailed or faxed to teachers in most settings. It is usually best to share this news with students promptly. Many arelikely to be checking in with families and friends and will hear some of the information from them. Students who learn of the news at school will often communicate quickly by text messages or via cell phone. This can leave students in the difficult position of informing others who have not yet heard the news (e.g., friends, classmates, teachers). This is an unfair burden for students.
- During summer vacation or over a holiday period, news of a death may appear in local papers or other news outlets. The school might choose to contact students' families by e-mail or telephone trees to relay the information. In some situations, especially if the death is likely to have a significant impact on many students, the school may decide to open for a day or an evening. Students and families could be invited to come in to talk with counselors if they wish.
- After a summer or holiday period, announcements should be given in all classes so that students who might have missed the information during the break are appropriately informed.
What happens in a school when so many people are sharing an experience of grief? The following are some common occurrences among students:
- Everything is multiplied. When one grieving student looks around, he or she sees other grieving students. One person crying might start several other people crying. One anxious student might heighten anxiety in three other students. One act of compassion inspires others. Both positive and negative coping behaviors are likely to be repeated and multiplied many times.
- Anxiety can grow. It was previously mentioned that death challenges our assumptions about the things that will stay in place in our world.We can no longer feel assured that our family members will be waiting for us at home in the evening. When many students in a school are experiencing this effect, anxiety may become higher for all students.
- Students come with a range of experience and understanding. Although bereavement is a common experience among children, many students may have never experienced the death of someone they personally know well. They will be having these experiences of grief, anxiety, and confusion for the first time. Other students are likely to have already experienced a death. They will have some basic understandings about grief-they know it is intense, it is confusing, and that it may persist for awhile, but it does not throw you off track forever.
- Information spreads quickly. Death is compelling and raises anxiety for almost everyone. People naturally want to know about these events. Staff and students will talk among themselves about what happened. This creates a ripe environment for passing along information as well as for spreading rumors.This is one reason it is so important to inform the entire school of a death at the same time-it gives all students the same level of knowledge. Otherwise, some students will hear an accurate statement provided by their teachers, and other students will pick up rumors or bits of overheard conversation. When information is inaccurate or incomplete, anxiety and complicated reactions are more likely.
- Students are confused about what is expected. Children and teens who have not experienced grief at a group level, or who have never gone through something this serious, may feel uncertain about what to do and how to behave. Particularly among adolescents, who sometimes have an "imaginary audience"in their minds, there may be some rumination about what is expected. "Did I cry enough? Or was that too much?" "Am I supposed to look really serious and sad even if I don't feel that way?" "Am I supposed to act like I'm actually reading this assignment in class today, when I can't concentrate on anything?"
- Some students will naturally be more empathic. Some students seem to know what to say or do to help themselves, peers, and even teachers feel better. These students can provide positive role modeling and emotional support for their classmates. This is one of the benefits of having students share experiences and ideas about how to deal with grief. They can reach out to one another, offer support, and learn from each other. However, it is important to recognize that a student who appears to be handling the situation well may also benefit from support. These students should not be expected to carry extra burdens as the school community copes with the loss.
- Teachers can have a range of powerful reactions. All of these experiences can be compounded by the fact that teachers and other staff are also having powerful reactions. Teachers may have many of the same responses students do- difficulty concentrating, uncertainty about how to act and what to say, confusion, anxiety, and a sense of being overwhelmed by the concentration of grief in the school community.
Often, a few teachers have had a special connection with a student who has died. They may have offered tutoring and mentorship to the student, encouraged extra plans or projects, sponsored the student in competitions, or had other opportunities to build a stronger-than-usual relationship. Some teachers step into roles almost as surrogate parents. They may be personally devastated by the death of a student they admired and cared about.
When an announcement about a death is made schoolwide, teachers may also find themselves experiencing something quite different from their students. If a sixth-grade student dies, for example, the second-grade students may not have known him or her, but their teacher who makes the announcement to the class may have taught this student. Similarly, if a teacher or school administrator dies, students may not have known the person well and may have a mild response to news of the death. Their teacher, however, may befeeling grief related to the loss of a colleague or friend, along with a sense of personal vulnerability (e.g., "Could such a death happen to me?").
As discussed previously, teachers can make a meaningful difference in times of grief by establishing an authentic and supportive connection with students. Thefollowing are some steps that will be especially useful when a school is reactingto a death in their community. Most of these will sound familiar because they are similar to the steps recommended for individual students experiencing grief.
- Know the guidelines of the school for these situations. Schools should make guidelines available to teachers through an Intranet site or written documents, or in other ways. Every teacher should have access to copies of crisis plans at any time. Familiarity with the plan should be developed through ongoing training and exercises. If the school does not have crisis plans in place, teachers should advocate for their development.
- Remember that any student may be deeply affected. It is impossible to know the experiences of every student. Any student may be deeply affected by a death, so it is important that teachers speak sensitively about the incident to all students.
- Be approachable. Teachers who can talk about complex and difficult topics, including death and grief, are more likely to be approached by students looking for support. Teachers should take opportunities to discuss these matters in an open, authentic manner; for example, by talking with a class about common grief reactions or by discussing how receiving support for troublesome feelings can be helpful.
- Listen. When students want to share, it can be especially powerful for them simply to have an attentive listener. The focus should be on them.
- Protect students. Teachers should take steps to protect students from being retraumatized about the death. Emotionally expressive students might be teased by others for crying. Reporters might want to talk to students about the death. A television in a common area might be tuned to a news station repeating details about the death.
- Make connections. The strategies described in Chapter 5 can be used to make authentic and positive connections with students. Teachers should invite them to talk about their thoughts and experiences.
- Teach about grief and normalize receiving support. Teachers can help students understand common reactions to grief, including having strong feelings, being confused, feeling out of control, and so forth. They can emphasize the importance of reaching out for support and the power of giving support to others. Teachers can also include suggestions about when seeking help is especially important (e.g., when troublesome feelings persist or get worse) and provide resources (e.g., the support room set up by the school after a crisis).
- Be a positive role model. It is okay for students to see their teachers' emotions, as well as some of the ways they are coping with their feelings. This helps them understand how to express their own feelings and come up with strategies for coping. For example, a teacher might say to her class, "I was shocked when I heard the news, and I just felt like crying." Or, "When I heard about the car crash, I felt frightened. I was even nervous when I got in the car this morning." Then the teacher could offer an example of coping. "After I cried, I talked to my husband (or sister, friend), and it helped me feel better. Who is someone you could talk to if you were feeling sad?" Or, "I took a couple of deep breaths, made sure my seatbelt was fastened, and was very attentive thewhole time I drove here."
- Watch for signs of distress now and over time. Teachers can use the guidelines that were reviewed in Chapter 7 to identify students showing signs of distress.They should then provide referrals when appropriate. Although a school crisis plan, including drop-in counseling support, may be in place for a week or so, powerful feelings might come up for some students for weeks, months, or even a year or more after the incident.
- Seek personal support. These experiences are deeply emotional for teachers. Crisis response plans should provide support for them as well. Teachers should consider visiting the staff support room or talking with one of the counselors even if they do not feel a strong need to do so. This provides good role modeling for students and colleagues. We also find this type of support helpful for people who are coping well with a loss, and we recommend it to teachers who have worked in a school setting that has experienced a crisis or death.