Originally posted on September 1, 2014. Sadly, the number of students I have lost has increased since then.
Working in a place as teeming with life as a high school campus, it can be very hard to process the complex emotions that abound when we lose one of our own. While we hope our students never have to experience such a loss so young, the odds are strong this will not be the case.
I teach at a suburban high school in a middle-class neighborhood with high home values and city streets that seem to roll up as the sun goes down. People move to our area to send their kids to our school and neighboring campuses. One might think we have escaped the specter of death, but that simply is not true. In the last 10 years, I personally have known a staff member and four students that we lost, one just a few weeks ago. Since no one is immune to such suffering, it is vital we find ways to help students endure this experience.
At a larger school, a death might not have as significant an impact, but on my relatively small campus we all feel the loss when we someone dies. Personally, if he or she was enrolled in my class, I remember where the student sat, the jokes he or she cracked and a host of other, otherwise insignificant details. It’s a given the mood on campus is going to be awkward for a while, but the healing process will be stunted unless we deal with pain and sadness in a real and tangible way.
For students, the death of a family member teaches them people eventually die, but the death of someone who sat in the next row or two seats over suggests to teens they might be next. The natural fear this produces needs to be addressed. Schools are quick to provide counselors to help students process their emotions, but just talking with your child about how they knew the deceased can go a long way as well.
Memorial services also are very important in the healing process. What typically begins as an appropriately somber event often includes moments of laughter as silly and sometimes moderately embarrassing stories are shared. Students need to know it’s OK to laugh as well as cry and this is an ideal environment to begin that practice.
Finally, social media is becoming an excellent way to express positive emotions. We are quick to criticize the entire medium as a venue for bullying and belittling, but sharing pictures and thoughts on a memorial webpage or donating money to a group or organization can be a great way to turn a tragedy into a legacy of hope.
Whether a student dies from a car accident, cancer or unknown causes, the ultimate goal is to convince his or her classmates they must go on living even though their friend will not. Asking those who remain to live their lives differently, often with greater intentionality, can be the greatest lesson to come out of such pain.
But unlike other important lessons we teach, it is one that doesn’t get easier with repetition.
I have been a public high school teacher in Southern California since 2005 and writing since junior high. I have an affinity for chocolate, photography, sarcasm and well-written TV shows that refuse to talk down to their audiences.