Shock and Sadness: Losing a Student and Learning How to Cope

7942728236_c2f9b5c8ae_bBy Sabrina Bong – Throughout my life, I have gotten some scary phone calls. There was the time that my grandmother called to say that my grandpa had died. There was the voicemail my husband left me to say that he had been in a car accident. But none of the frightening phone calls I’ve received so far topped the one that I got just last week, where the principal of my school said seven, heartbreaking words:

A student from our school has died.

As an intern, hearing that a student had died was tragic. I hadn’t known what to do, or how to help the students around me cope. But there is definitely something different when you are such an integrated part of the staff. You feel closer to the students, almost protective. Those students become “your kids.” You worry about them at night, and keep a watchful eye on them during the day. Perhaps this is why my thoughts were so scattered immediately after hearing that one of our students had died.

Oh my God, was it Tony? Or Billy? What about Penny? Is it one of the Student Ambassadors? How did this happen? Who was sick? How does a kid die? They are too young to die! The poor parents! I can’t imagine being in that position. Boy or girl? One of my eighth graders or younger? The poor teachers! I can’t imagine getting that news.

As the principal slowly filled me in on the few details he knew, and outlined a plan for us to follow the next day, I found myself descending in a state of shock. The student was a 7th grader that I somewhat knew. He would help the teachers in the cafeteria, whether that meant pushing in chairs or helping empty the trash cans. I remember just a few days before his death, he had shown me a toy that he had earned for all of his help after the lunches. I think it was a dinosaur. He was so excited and had showed all of his friends and several of the teachers. He had the biggest smile on his face. How could such an outgoing, enthusiastic student be gone?

I walked into work the next day, scared of what to expect. This was one of my first experiences with a student’s death. Immediately, all of us counselors and the principal sat down and came up with a list of what needed to be done, as well as a timeline for when everything should be completed. That was a little overwhelming. We knew that we had to make a staff announcement, but also wanted to give the student’s teachers a heads-up before dropping the news on them.

We called down all of his teachers and had them meet in one of our offices. No one knew what to say. The principal announced it to the rest of the staff during the meeting. We called counselors at the high school and asked if they could be on “stand-by,” should we need them. We composed a speech for teachers to give, informing students of his death, and wrote up a letter to send home to the parents.

As a counselor, here are some tips I think are important to remember when a student has died:

  1. When talking about death with your students, be open and honest. It is okay to say that someone died. Using euphemisms for death (“he went to sleep and didn’t wake up”) may scare students, or make them believe that they will die as well. Though most of my students understand the concept of death, this is still something that is foreign to many of them. Also, be sure that you talk about death at their level. Reading stories are helpful, but ensure that they are age appropriate. And be ready for the discussion that may ensue as a result!
  2. Be available as much as you can for your students AND your teachers. Remember that it’s much more difficult for teachers to reach out to you when they need help versus students. We told teachers that if they needed a break, to give us a call downstairs and we would cover their class for a while.
  3. Death can re-traumatize students. Not only do you need to be available to console the kids who knew the student really well, there may be a host of students who needed to be consoled because this triggers them to remember another event in their lives. Of all the students I talked to in the past week, I would estimate that 2/3 of them remembered a tragic death in their past, and had to talk through their feelings.
  4. Self-care. The death of a student affects everyone, whether they realize it right away or not. Since you, as the counselor, will be one of the sole sources of support in the rough days ahead, make sure that you take time for yourself once the school day is over. Get that pedicure, or enjoy your favorite TV show.

I remember as we were all moving around the school, checking on teachers and consoling crying students, one of my teachers and I were talking in the hallway. I made a comment that I hoped to never get a phone call like that again. She said to me that she had experienced two deaths at the previous school she worked at, and agreed that those types of phone calls were the worst. I distinctly remember her saying, “You never get used to those types of calls. Even when you’ve heard it once or twice before, you still feel sick to your stomach every time it happens.” Then, she gave me a tiny smile. “This is a learning experience,” she reminded me.

This week has been a learning experience, but this is one that I hope I do not have to repeat any time soon.

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