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Between the ages of 11 and 14, I experienced four tragic losses in school. Two faculty members died, and two students died.
From these experiences, I learned how a student population, as well as a school’s administration, handles the topic of grief.
Many U.S. families are grieving the loss of loved ones in the current coronavirus crisis. Their number is growing. When schools reopen, they will almost certainly find themselves facing a community in grief. I hope this story about how our school worked with me and others to cope with tragedy will help.
The first death occurred out of school, over the summer. Our math teacher died of cancer, which wasn’t a surprise to many students. He had been gone for most of the year and so many were prepared, but that didn’t mean it hurt any less. We were informed via an email to our parents, and we were told to reach out if we needed any emotional help. This was a more private experience left to families to handle individually, rather than for students to work through together.
I was only 11. This was the first time I knew someone who died, and so I was more shocked than anything. It was something I pushed out of my mind because, without other students around me to share my sadness with, it was harder to see the impact that would prove to me he was actually gone.
There was a lack of community when he passed away, but nothing could be done about it. It was summer break, and so my emotions faded, never fully processed. I spent my time playing video games and writing poetry, trying to forget the fact that I would never see him again.
The second time my school faced a loss, we were told during the school day. I remember administrators coming to our classroom to inform us about the death by suicide of one of our peers. My teacher allowed us to reschedule the test we had been taking in order to process the news. The administrators stayed in our room to offer us some support before moving on to other classrooms and other students.
I was initially shocked, unable to comprehend the fact that someone I had talked to, albeit briefly, was actually gone so suddenly. This feeling quickly turned to numbness, as I saw others around me begin to cry. I tried to support those around me and shove my own emotions aside, but I inevitably broke down. The effect of losing someone still lingers with me today. I know that I’m more abrasive because of it.
I went to the library a total of three times, for periods ranging from an entire hour to only five minutes. The counselors offered calming items, such as slime and coloring sheets, and had various adults talk students through their emotions.
It was helpful to be surrounded by others experiencing the same thing. The process of comforting and being comforted was cathartic. I even made a friend through the experience.
On my last visit, I remember that adults were advised to urge kids back to class. I was sympathetically asked if I could attempt to go to class and complete assignments. It was the last thing I wanted to do at that moment.
In the end, I had to go back to class anyway, as the library was closed for our sixth and seventh periods. The front office was still open to offer assistance, but all students were meant to learn for the last two hours of school. Because of this, most of our grief was pushed aside so we could focus on work.
The next day, the process of seeing a guidance counselor was the same as it always had been — you’d schedule an appointment through the school webpage — and teachers continued to assign work.
The second student death that year, also by suicide, resulted in the library staying open longer. We received a packet talking about mental health and helpful affirmations, but trying to process everything healthily was hard when I had both a writing assignment and a book project due the next day.
Suppressing my sadness in order to keep up with school had a negative effect on me in the long run.
When I was 14, another one of my teachers passed away from a heart attack. I had seen him the night before his death, as had many of my peers. Over the weekend, students tried to process what had happened. I remember fights occurring because individuals interpreted different coping mechanisms as disrespectful. Due to the stress of grief, it was easier for some to lash out.
How can we ensure that students aren’t drowning in stress through an already difficult time? More broadly, we should ask ourselves: How can a school maintain its curriculum, its students’ academic performance and its students’ well-being simultaneously?
The National Association of School Psychologists states that “grieving does not have a timeline,” noting how “anniversaries, birthdays, developmental milestones, and other factors” can trigger grief stemming from an incident that might have occurred years before. I know for a fact that I still remember the anniversaries of my peers’ and teachers’ passing.
Unfortunately, a school cannot ensure that all of its students maintain healthy mental states. These deaths occurred when my peers and I were developing emotionally the most, and keeping all of us from being stressed and upset would prove impossible.
However, there are ways that we can support and educate students about grief so they are better equipped to handle it.
When I faced these situations, I didn’t realize how many different ways people could grieve. I wasn’t alone in this — I remember my friends feeling insecure over how they dealt with their grief. I always thought that everyone coped by crying for a few days before suddenly becoming happy and acting normally. In reality, this isn’t even close to the case.
I also felt alone when I realized that people could talk normally and laugh at jokes while I was still suffering internally. My pain from these situations lasted for months. The same fear constantly lingered in the back of my mind: What if I’m overreacting? Shouldn’t I be over this?
If schools could offer even a little bit of education regarding how students actually deal with grief, we would all be less critical of ourselves and others.
Though grief is an uncomfortable topic to tackle, shedding light on this subject is crucial.
Just reminding students of the following things can help:
“You’re not alone.”
“Whatever you’re feeling is okay.”
“I can give you an extension on this assignment.”
“Your mental health is more important than your homework.”
Grief is something all students experience. If administrators and guardians could educate students on how we all cope and what we can do, the experience won’t feel so unbearable.
This story about grieving in schools was produced by Student Voice Forum and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Sara Falluji is a freshman at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky, and a member of the editorial board of the Student Voice Forum, an independent student publication that shares the stories of students across Kentucky.