This topic may be a little too recent to discuss with some perspective, but we recently lost a senior student in a car accident.
She was one of our dream students: cheerleader, great student, fun-loving, and loved by all.
You can imagine the grief and remorse that gripped our school and community during this time. As painful as the time was for our school, I also watched people pull together in some beautiful ways.
A good friend asked me how a school can prepare for something like this. I don’t think anyone can ever prepare for the loss of a student, but here is some feedback I shared with him as he wanted some ideas to share with his school leadership:
1. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Information is vital for people to cope with grief. As soon as we were able to establish a line of communication in this situation, we did. We had a staff person on site who was loved and trusted by the family.
Frequent messages were relayed back to us. One staff person at the school emailed out those updates so teachers/students could be kept up-to-date. Nothing is more difficult for people in grief than not knowing what is happening, so communicate frequently and factually.
I also took time to send an email to all of our parents attempting to sensitively inform them. I assured them them that we would have a team of counselors on hand, and encouraged them that we would patiently and compassionately carry on with as normal a school schedule as possible.
We also held an emergency faculty meeting so everyone was on the same page with understanding what happened and how we would respond.
2. Be present and visible.
As the principal, I felt it important to visit the family as well. So as soon as I could, I was present and available to the family. I kept my time brief, but I wanted to communicate on behalf of the school the sadness and love felt by all for the student and her loved ones.
I also attended a prayer vigil and the funeral and kept in constant communication with a family friend as well as my school and district leaders on what was happening.
We ended up hosting the funeral at the school, which also required some hands on preparations.
Needless to say, many of my other duties were postponed for this priority, but I tried to be as visible as possible throughout the school so teachers and students could sense we were still “doing school” while also responding to the crisis.
3. Maintain as much stability and routine as possible.
A healthy way to manage grief is staying the course. In the spirit of trying to maintain routines, we cancelled some professional development time we had scheduled that would have brought some substitutes in for some teachers.
Instead we encouraged all of our teachers to be in class so that our week could be “as normal as possible.”
Even while we prepared for grief, I encouraged our teachers to teach. Not every student or teacher grieves the same. And some knew the student better than others. Keeping the routine as normal as possible helped school stay on track with a back-up plan for those needing more attention.
4. Allow creative and spontaneous responses.
While maintaining a good routine is important, likewise, you can never predict the kind of responses students will demonstrate or ask to initiate, so remain flexible.
For instance, some volunteers organized an evening prayer vigil. Teachers created signs where students could write love messages and prayers.
Students asked for a school-wide effort to wear a favorite color in memory. They requested a spontaneous group photo at the end of one day and over 300 students participated. We sent the photo as a love message to the family.
One teacher told me that the first day back, her students were unable to speak with the empty desk reminding them of their friend. Finally, one of them asked if they could sign the desk. With sharpies in hand, this began a time of guided and compassionate memory sharing.
Other teachers were able to carry on class as usual as individual students asked to visit or share with others in the counseling office.
Be prepared to play it by ear. Maintain as normal a routine as possible while also allowing room for expressions of sympathy.
5. Ask for help from outside the school.
We were intentional about calling in counselors from our other schools to be with us the first day after our student’s death. In addition, ministers from area churches were allowed to be present for students comfortable in sharing with them.
Having additional, supportive adults in the building was also comforting to parents as they were concerned about their own children’s ability to cope at school.
As we coordinated with the funeral home on arrangements, we also leaned on staff and volunteers to help with set-up, sound systems, etc. Our school photo vendor donated a large print of her senior portrait for the family. It was a time where lots of people wanted to lend a hand.
6. Enjoy and appreciate your students.
One of the best ways to soothe the hurt of loss is by paying special attention to the wonderful kiddos you still have in your care. Continue to give them kudos and don’t forget to congratulate their successes.
For example, our football team had just made it to playoffs when our student tragedy took place. Even in the midst of grieving, we still celebrated their win. The team was treated to a special dinner. We made a big deal in announcements about their accomplishments. Their coach was our teacher of the month.
Losing someone reminds you to let individual students and teachers know how much they are appreciated.
7. Be prepared for media contact.
It wasn’t long before the tragedy made it on the news. We were contacted by at least two different sources wanting details. Thanks to my yearbook teacher, I was prepared with a digital photo the family gave me permission to share. We highlighted the positive response of our students, teachers, and community.
It helped that we had already established good contact with these news sources in the past, so I could trust them to report and not exploit the situation. In fact, their reporting was another kind tribute to her memory.
8. Allow yourself time to grieve.
Times like these often bring back painful memories of former student losses or even personal losses. Don’t forget to allow yourself time to grieve in the process of comforting others.
Even though I was not personally close to the student we lost, I still found myself appreciating the comfort and prayers of those closest to me.
Taking time to privately acknowledge your own struggle will help you compassionately respond to the struggles others are having.
No one is ever really prepared for something as painful as a student death. But one way to show compassion during such a time is to be prepared to support your school community when they are grieving.
Whether that includes communicating, being there, bringing in help, keeping up routines, showing appreciation, managing media contacts, or allowing yourself time to grieve–these are just some of the ways you can positively contribute during a painful time for your school.
Now It’s Your Turn
I know some of you have been through similar or perhaps more difficult situations. What are some other ways we could be better prepared to help during such times? Share your thoughts, ideas, or resources with the rest of us!
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