Last Friday night was graduation at the high school where I teach. Graduation – a time for family, memories, and celebration. This past Friday, however, will be a graduation that will forever stay in my memory. Moments before the ceremony began, a parent of one of our graduates had a heart attack and passed away. Her funeral was today. The reality of life is that death is a part of life, and sadly many of these graduates are all too familiar with the reality of death.
This year alone several of our students have lost a parent due to accidents, illness, and tragic circumstances. Other students have lost grandparents; one of my students lost three of her grandparents in the month of April. Students have lost their friends who should have been graduating in the Class of 2015 to cancer and cystic fibrosis. Students have lost siblings. I am amazed by a student who I have the privilege of teaching next year who wants to organize a local Out of the Darkness Walk in memory of her sister. Our valedictorian is planning on studying pediatric oncology; a decision surely influenced from losing a younger sibling to childhood cancer. Hardly any student has not been touched by the reality of death. Other students have absentee parents or have been abandoned by parents, and these students also mourn the loss of celebrating graduation with estranged fathers or absentee mothers.
How can you help a student cope with loss?
Initiate conversations about a family member who has passed away. The last thing most students want is to think that everyone has forgotten about their loved one. Share a favorite memory or story. If you did not know the person they lost, point out specific attributes or accomplishments of the student that would make their mother or father proud.
Allow students to grieve in the midst of celebration. Milestones often bring up a whole new wave of emotion or sense of loss for students; don’t discourage them from working through their feelings. Grief cannot be rushed.
Don’t be surprised by a student’s range of emotions. I stood holding a sobbing student after baccalaureate only to be laughing with her less than an hour later over yogurt. Both of these responses were completely appropriate and normal.
Don’t try to fix a student who has suffered loss. Sitting in silence or saying, “This really sucks; I’m sorry” is better than trying to come up with wise words or muttering a stupid cliche to help a grieving student.
Lots of hugs and lots of prayers.
I think as adults we are afraid if we don’t have all of the answers, we have no right to speak. But who has the right answers for a child who loses a parent, sibling, friend, or loved one? Life is messy, but we owe it to our students to help them sort through the messy and embrace not only the reality of life but also death.