By Stephanie Filio
When someone in a school has something to celebrate, the whole school celebrates together. Marriages, graduations, babies—no matter what it is, the staff is less weighty, the kids catch the spirit, and everyone moves through the day with a little extra pep in their step. In the same manner, when something unfortunate occurs to one of us, there is a unified sadness in the school. When a school community grieves, staff and students sit vigil together. To watch a school ache as one is both fiercely heartbreaking and extremely heartwarming at the same time.
Sometimes tragedy hits very close to home and we lose one of our own.
A school might go years without losing an educator, or it might experience a dark time when tragedies occur in a chain rather than experiencing an isolated incident. This year has been one of those tough years for many of my current and former colleagues and students. At my school, we started the year with a loss, and then lost a second wonderful teacher. Not much later, a lovely teacher passed at the school where I previously worked.
We come to be so familiar with our jobs, schools, and students that we are rarely surprised. Being able to anticipate student needs is comforting, allowing us to feel in control in the midst of the preadolescent chaos. But there is always something unexpected on the horizon, and in those moments we can learn a great deal. I am learning so much from my colleagues this year as we navigate these sad losses in our hallways.
We speak without words.
Many staff members expressed feeling anxious about returning to school, wondering what it would “feel like” to walk through the school hallways for the first time after the news that a teacher had passed away. We nodded and waved at each other, giving silent condolences and assurance of solidarity. My colleagues appeared trapped by their thinking and found themselves at a loss for words.
Having time to process things is immeasurably important for adults and students alike. It is okay to let our feelings take time.
Even in our more solitary states, we still need social interactions. These interactions can be quiet, or leadership can be tasked with the talking. Either way, the goal is to allow everyone to lean on one another. When one of our school family members dies, we need reassurance that we still have each other.
We can feel close to someone even if we don’t know them well.
Educating students is emotionally intimate, and it leads to relationships that go much deeper than surface feelings.
Some teachers remarked that they still felt deeply moved by the loss of a fellow teacher, even though they had hardly crossed paths with the departed colleague. In our schools, our spirits fill spaces larger than our immediate bodies. We share our thoughts and feelings with a friend, and they carry us to their corridor. We educate students, and they carry us past that year. We are all so connected; there is no one way to care for someone or grieve for someone—a reassurance that some of us need to hear.
There are things we can never be prepared for.
The shock of a death is always difficult. When it happens in our schools, we are given reminders all day that the person is gone. We may have been co-teachers on the same team, passed by each other every morning, or had neighboring mailboxes. Our emotions are tripped each time we go through the same motion with that missing piece.
When our daily pattern is abruptly altered, we might feel anxious until a new habit is established. Changes caused by tragedy obviously create complex emotional responses. By grief counseling standards, we know that the human heart and mind fight the “new normal,” causing tension and behavior within an individual. Sharing feelings such as sadness about the loss, guilt for surviving, or fear of the future does not always take a clinical professional—sometimes it just takes a friend.
Support for Students Through Teachers
After we learned that a teacher had passed away at my school, my fellow school counselors and I offered teachers a shoulder to lean on if they needed it. I reached out to teachers at my previous school as well when I heard that a staff member there had passed away. In both places, and over and over again, the offer was appreciated but declined. What I found was that for many school staff members, the need was in the classroom and with the students.
Teachers turned to us to gain an understanding of how these situations were interpreted by students. They needed help establishing their role with students and figuring out the best way to approach young people who were grieving. The number one support my colleagues and I gave them was an invitation to send our way students who were struggling to maintain their emotions.
Some opportunities that we can provide students also serve a purpose for teachers. Activities and conversations can become a powerful rapport-building experience in the classroom. The goal is not to explain death, dying, or suffering to students, because that is best decided by students’ families and their norms. We can, however, remain focused on positivity and help students learn to cope with hardship. Here are some activities you might use with your school community:
- A remembrance or mindfulness activity can help students who feel the urge to contribute in some way. They might be grappling with feelings of helplessness, and making cards for the family, creating remembrance rocks to decorate the school, or fundraising can help these students and staff feel like they are doing their part.
- Social activities can give students and staff the opportunity to share their feelings and also feel renewed by camaraderie with one another. The activities can be optional, but might include sharing positive stories for the family, celebrating the deceased person’s favorite hobbies or teams, or wearing something representative of that teacher to celebrate their legacy.
- Mindfulness activities are helpful for everyone and are particularly loved by students who are not ready to talk, but need to keep their minds busy without effort. Coloring Zentangles, practicing breathing techniques, or listening to soothing music while completing quiet work might be ideal activities for the days that follow a death in the school. These give students a brain break, and they also give teachers a chance to catch their breath.
- Completing a worksheet about positive community qualities or emotion identification, discussing positive personal qualities, and writing about great qualities in a friend or family member are helpful ways to keep students and staff focused on the positive things in life.
Don’t underestimate how tricky it can be for teachers to show up to their classrooms during an emotionally charged situation while still having to lead, teach, and engage students. Though emotional exhaustion would cause anyone to need to pause and have a quiet day of reflection, teachers are awarded no such luxury. The students still come, the clock still ticks, and the pressure to deliver content still hovers and stalks. Giving teachers specific responses and phrases offers them a script to draw from so that quick thinking in the moment can be eased, even if only a bit.
Teachers might like a little crash course in sensitive communication. They can use direct language that only repeats the message of administration in terms of how much is revealed about the circumstances of the loss. For example, if a student asks, “What happened?” the teacher can say, “It is sad that Mrs. T—— passed away. What do you remember most about her?” When students break down, your responses can be short, such as, “I am glad we have each other to remember her by. What was your favorite thing about her?” All answers can be steered toward positive living and personality traits of the deceased person to help students focus on climbing out of the hole instead of falling down it.
We all know that it is not the exorbitant pay or lavish locales that keep us coming back to education every year. The feeling we get from serving our community and students is only the tip of the iceberg. The relationships we foster and the family we create within our schools and school divisions are what truly make our service possible. Our inside jokes, our memes, our disdain for a full moon make us the kindest (and smartest) mafia one can ever encounter. When we lose one of our school family members, we grieve in a way that is just as unparalleled as the rest of our world.
As I often say, counselors are in a unique position of being able to aid both students and staff. We can perform CPR when the heart of the school needs to keep beating, and we can support multiple functions of the larger system by collaborating with the smaller parts and uniting their needs. Part of this is sharing information with teachers to spread throughout the student body or reassuring them that they are amazing educators who will do no harm if they lead student interactions with their hearts.
Counseling in middle school in particular is a long game. What we teach students won’t really hit home until they are older and mature enough to really understand and process the information. Every one of our students will encounter suffering, such as death and dying, in their lifetime. I truly believe that by guiding students through moments of loss that occur in school, we might make immeasurable differences in their lives, especially as they grow and experience personal grief.
This post is dedicated to our lovely sisters in arms: Wendy, Jackie, and Stacy.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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