On a very sad note, my district is starting off our year with a student suicide and one attempted suicide. As a teacher, this reality saddens me deeply. If anyone else out there has dealt with student suicide, how did you cope, help your students cope, and what did your district do to help struggling students contemplating (or showing sogns) suicide?
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My sincere sympathies for your sad beginning to the school year and the loss of a student's life. All of the above posts have excellent advice for you and your district.
My take is a bit different as I taught in a huge district, taught a class which discussed student issues including suicide, and still volunteer as a listener for prisoners in crisis. Once your district has brought in counselors to deal with the immediate situation, they must also look at WHY this happened. When investigated, most of our student suicides were from bullying, either because the students were different, gay, perceived to be gay, or because other students felt that it was acceptable to torment other students. Yes, depression was an issue, but for many, the bullying was directly linked to the depression. Some of the bullying was on the bus, some in the halls and classrooms, and some in the social media available to kids.
My best wishes to you for a better year.
In May one of our seniors took his life. A good, smart, and popular kid, his decision and subsequent death touched every member of our school community. There are no great words of wisdom to ease the loss. As previous posts mentioned, we had extra grief counselors. Our school has a strong Young Life group, and so they were also visible for our students. The most important thing I think we did during those few weeks was to listen. All the teachers kept their doors open. I had kids I had never taught before wander into my room and just talk about him. The good, the bad, and everything in between. The funeral was attended by almost the entire senior class, most of the teachers, and the members of his tennis team. For two hours the student lead ceremony sought to remember the best in the student while trying to put closure on their grief.
Without trying to seem as though they were learning a lesson, our students did. They learned how one person can touch the lives of so many people. They also learned the importance of their actions and how they can affect other people. Students saw this young man, who always seemed happy and carefree, and realized he had struggles too. Our students are learning the importance of talking about those struggles- with friends, with family, with teachers, with anyone who will listen.
Cleaning my room to open school I found his literature book, and had to sit down for a second. His loss remains with me and our students.
I lost a student last weekend to suicide. He was my student last year, in 8th grade, and was in high school at a different district school this year.
This young man was a victim of severe bullying. Last year, we (his team of teachers) reported it, wrote it up, etc., but we couldn't see it being addressed by school or district administration. The boy, Al (I've changed his name), had a cleft lip and palette. He'd had surgeries, but he sported a scar on his upper lip, as well as a lisp. He was picked on mercilessly for his disabilities, as well as his taste in music (he loved all music), but especially because he'd sing Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber songs - the kids called him horrible names.
He hanged himself last weekend from a swing set in his backyard. I found out from a student the morning after it happened. Our school and district never did talk to any of us about it, probably because Al was already at another school this year. I spoke with a teacher from his current school and he told me that their administration told all of the teachers to just tell the kids he died, but not discuss how or why.
I'm sick at heart because this boy was a truly good human being. Bullying needs to stop. School districts need to follow through on their own policies - ours has a zero tolerance policy for bullying - yet none of the kids who bullied Al last year were expelled.
As a teacher, all you can do is be there for the kids and listen to them.
I too have experienced death of students in my relatively short time of teaching. I agree with everything said so far, as many seem to be common practice.
One opportunity I have had (even in public school) as a result of tragedy is the opportunity to discuss and explore faith and spirituality in my life and the lives of my students. (I live in NC, where most public school families embrace a sense of "church life," which may make this easier for me.) I have had students lead class prayer, come by after school to ask ME for prayer, and even seen some kids make life-changing decisions in the face of life-changing circumstances. I'm not simply talking about kids becoming born-again Christians, but more the idea that many, with the realization of the brevity and unpredictability of life, begin to practice forgiveness, patience, and more purposeful living.
I can say with confidence that our high school always came through such tragedies somewhat better in the long run. Hard to look on the bright side in the middle of it, but keeping the big picture in mind helps even the youngest students cope and grow.
Thank you ALL for all of your suggestions and concerns. I know we will get through this. It is just so hard to see kids having to deal with issues such as these at such a young age.
Again, thank you all very much. I love the fact that this is not only a place for educational questions (history, literature, etc.), but a place where teachers can get help from other teachers who have "been there".
What a hard way to have to start the year - you all have my sympathy.
As others have stated, it's a challenge to find the balance between allowing time and opportunity for sharing of feelings and emotions and finding ways to move on with life. There may be some students who will need time away from class to talk with counselors, there may be some who internalize the whole incident at this point and won't be ready to share anything at this time, there may be some students who didn't know the individual you've lost and just want to get the year under way, and there definitely will be different time schedules as students and staff process the loss through the school year.
Be sensitive to each other, kids and adults, and be ready to listen and support as needed in whatever ways will be most helpful to others - it won't be the same for everyone.
My heartfelt sympathy for what you have experienced. My own experience has been working with students who have tried to kill themselves and have been advised to go on a course as part of their rehabilitation. I think there are opportunities to educate both staff and students that need to be exploited in this kind of situation. Clearly, what is needed is effective work with trained professionals who have the kind of knowledge and know-how that teachers do not. Working very closely with one or maybe more counsellors should be a great benefit in this area.
Anyone who has taught long enough has unfortunately experienced losses of this kind. It seems to me that, aside from counselors on campus who will be there initially and move on when the need lessens, there are three important things in helping students cope with tragedy. The first, of course, is not to deny the emotions. Wallowing is not healthy, but talking openly about the loss certainly is. As long as things do not become maudlin or consuming, it is healthy and normal for students to want to talk about their losses and feelings. Second, show solidarity. I teach in a smaller school where this is more practical, but attending funeral or memorial services as a group is a wonderful way to move forward after a loss. So many times there are students who have never been to a funeral or have never experienced tragic loss and they are a bit lost about how to be part of the rites and rituals of death. There is also comfort in numbers. The third thing can only happen once students know you, too, are grieving and have experienced the same loss: get back on track. There is something comforting and comfortable about routine, so as soon as it seems feasible, things should return to the routine. This "normalcy" is actually a relief for most students once their initial outpouring of grief is spent. I am so sorry for your loss.
I am very sorry for your school's loss. It's never easy, but there are some strategies that may help the kids cope. I've been through three suicides over the years, one in his car in the school parking lot, another a senior who left us on the morning of his graduation. These occurred at two different high schools, and in each case extra guidance counselors came from nearby high schools to help out; some students seemed to feel better talking to someone that they didn't see on a day-to-day basis. It's also important for students to not be allowed to isolate themselves in their grief; having the extra adults on hand allowed us to watch for that.
The most important thing seems to be to talk about the issue but not to allow it to be glamorized. Kids need to grasp that suicide is not an appropriate response to stress. The person who commits suicide is not floating near the ceiling enjoying the sight of others feeling bad and saying "if only...", they are dead. For teachers, that means allowing the facts to be discussed as you feel necessary, but guiding the conversation so it doesn't turn inward and become a round of self-condemnation.
It's also tough to find an appropriate way to memorialize someone who commits suicide, but students often feel the need to do so. Again, you don't want to glamorize the act, but something real needs to be done. If the issue comes up, I would try to guide the kids toward doing something simple - a fundraising drive with the proceeds to be donated to a charity that would have been meaningful to the student who died, or perhaps planting a tree or having a bench with a small memorial plaque put on your school campus somewhere.
As for the possibility of others contemplating suicide, you should never, ever underestimate the power of a simple but heartfelt expression of caring. You don't have to push, you can just say "Hey, are you doing OK? You seem sad lately. If you want to talk, just let me know." This works wonders if you A) really mean it, and B) make an effort to be immediately available to those fragile kids if you sense one of them is reaching out to you.
What a tragic loss and experience. One thing that is important is to continue to pursue the goals of the living, but it is equally important to remember that shock and grief are not things "to put behind you," rather they are things to adjust to slowly over time. Even if the daytime work has the appearance of normal life, at home alone when the doorknob is turned the shock and grief still overwhelm. This needs to be taken account of and not rushed past nor brushed aside. And do recall that the Five Stages of Grief theory has been called into serious scientific question lately.
While I think the immediate need is to address the loss and provide counselors for any and all students who may need help, I also think that students will want a return to normalcy. In a time of crisis, it can be a comfort to just have familiar routines such as typically happen in a classroom. The lesson of the day may be a nice reprieve from the emotion of the death. I don't know how large your school is, but in a larger school there will be many students who have no connection to the student who has died, and they certainly will appreciate having a "business as usual" approach. In a smaller school, that may not be an issue. As the teacher, you need to be careful not to appear callous of the dead child or the students who are shook up -- explain why you are going to carry on a lesson for the day -- modify it as needed.
In my second year in my district, one of my students put a shotgun to his chest and blew himself through his front window just as the school bus was going by. Even worse, he was a twin...and I had his twin in class as well.
The day after this happened, we met as a staff with our counselors and administration and were filled in on the details. Outside counselors were brought in and made available in a private conference room, and we were instructed as a staff to talk to the first period class and let them know the help that was available...and to assure them that at any time if they needed to leave the room to meet with counselors that they would be allowed to.
I have never had to deal with a student suicide, but I have had (sadly) quite a few students die in automobile accidents during my 25 years of teaching, and another of my favorite students died tragically of a ruptured appendix. I remember at least one assembly being held with school guidance counselors and additional district grief counselors present to assist any students who wanted to talk. I have had several students who unsuccessfully attempted suicide before I was their teacher, and several of them talked with me frankly about their reasons for taking such drastic measures. One of my journalism classes lost two students (and a third injured) in an accident, and we talked about it reflectively during the next class gathering. Most of the kids just wanted to know if there was some way they could help the families. I pass this deadly intersection regularly, and I rarely fail to remember the sad day when I heard the news.
So sorry for your loss. I imagine your school/district are already taking steps to deal with the student grief that is to be expected with such a tragedy, but brining in some professional grief counselors to help support the counseling staff at the school is a good idea. Perhaps close the library for the day and teachers can send students down that need to talk to someone, as they will likely be unable to concentrate in class anyway. Don't feel like you need to hide your own emotion either, as teachers are human too and students need to see that. All my best to you and your students for better weeks ahead.
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