Schools struggle with handling the loss of a student

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Similar to most hard questions, the question of how a school should handle the death of a student is one that is as important as it is complicated.

To Evelina Pereira-Webber, a child and adolescent psychotherapist, the response to this question is central to the identity of the institution, as well as the environment it creates in all aspects of learning.

“A school is about life, and the other side of life is death, so if you don’t deal with death you’re really not dealing well with life,” explained Pereira-Webber.

For New Trier, the way in which the death of a student is managed underscores the complexity of each loss and creates a plan based on the many variables that accompany a death.

Tiffany Myers, the social work department chair, emphasized the fact that the response to a tragedy is unique to that tragedy.
“We ask a lot of questions and try to determine what is the most thoughtful and respectful way to work with someone’s passing,” explained Myers.

Myers emphasized, “What it [the course of action] doesn’t depend on is how important that person was. Whether we hang something on the wall or not, they are going to be missed.”

She added that, “there is no uniformity to how the school has handled deaths in the past. I think we try to think about each circumstance individually and be really mindful of all the parts.”

Similar to Myers, Sharon Rosman, the coordinator for school programs and the clinical site coordinator for Willow House, agreed that all losses differ in their variables.

“Every situation is different, every school is different, and every family is different– that must always be taken into account,” Rosman said.

While each situation is unique, both Rosman and Pereira-Webber urged schools to maintain a level of consistency in their response to the loss of a student.

“In the suicide literature, as well as suicide organizations, it is recommended that all school-community deaths be treated the same in terms of how they are memorialized. In other words, however the person dies, whether it’s by suicide, whether it’s by cancer, or by a car accident, they are honored and memorialized in the same types of ways,” Rosman advised.

Pereira-Webber agreed that consistency is crucial, especially in the case of death by suicide, to ensure that some losses are not viewed as greater than others.

“It becomes a situation where if someone dies by suicide they are punished, and people won’t talk,” Pereira-Webber said, referencing the way in which many schools ignore suicide.

One such example of painful inconsistency, Pereira-Webber described, was growing up in a Catholic school where if a student died by suicide they would not be given a mass.

To Pereira-Webber a large part of the inconsistencies with regard to the response to death are based upon fears.

“I think that grown-ups get so scared of the death of a child, that they don’t talk about it, because it is everyone’s biggest fear, it is everyone’s nightmare,” Pereira-Webber said.

Beyond the fear of death itself, Rosman suggests that in part the reluctance to treat deaths equally comes from a fear of contagion.
“Schools may be fearful of romanticizing and glamorizing suicide in their efforts to memorialize someone, so they are often cautious in what they do,” Rosman observed.

Rosman continued, adding that “suicide is very stigmatized in our society, and filled with so much blame and shame, that people often don’t want to talk about it, think about it, or acknowledge it.”

Aside from the way in which deaths are handled in comparison to one another, both Rosman and Pereira-Webber highlighted the importance of a school offering students the opportunity to talk through their feelings surrounding the death.

“It stays with you if you don’t talk about it, and work through it,” stressed Pereira-Webber.

One key aspect of these conversations which is often forgotten is the way in which the teachers and the administration approach talking through the loss.

In an article titled “Confirming Life,” Pereira-Webber wrote “In the aftermath of a loss, a school’s leaders set a tone, and that tone exerts a strong influence on everyone.”

While each professional viewed the ideal response to a loss differently, they each agreed with Rosman in that no death, least of all death by suicide, has a simple answer.

Rossman said, “Suicide deaths are very complicated,” Rossman said. “And it’s often challenging for schools to know exactly how to deal with it.”

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