In 2015, my son Charles took his own life at age twenty during an episode of major depression and withdrawal from heroin. By 2017, I had sold my business and invested myself in suicide prevention which included a focus on postvention, the period following a death by suicide.
To better understand this kind of tragedy and its aftermath from an educator’s point of view, I interviewed several educators, including a Colorado public school teacher who had lost a student to suicide. This teacher offered a chilling account of how her students opened a Snapchat photo of a body bag as they arrived in class one day. It turned out to be a peer who had just killed himself. The tragedy played out live across a sea of shocked young faces in her classroom.
While there is no template for reacting to a calamity this horrific, teachers can be good and willing listeners for grieving students in the period following a suicide. Unresolved grief is a risk factor for self-harm, substance misuse, and more suicide. Educators can be catalysts for important conversations about death, which start with that group of students who wants to hear from someone they know.
These strategies can help educators respond to a suicide death appropriately and effectively.
Listen with empathy.
Empathetic listening is a critical first step to encouraging students to share what they are experiencing, making it more likely they’ll resort to healthy coping and begin the healing process.
Teachers can demonstrate active listening by leaning in or nodding. Instead of trying to fix things, educators might say: “Tell me why you feel that way.” “What made [name] a special friend?” or “I know how that makes me feel, but I wonder how you feel about it.”
Try to maintain a normal routine.
Most teachers can’t fathom standing in front of a class after a trauma, but showing up and making an effort counts. After a trauma, not expecting students to do any work at all in the classroom fragilizes them and reinforces a fallacy that they are too weak to handle the event.
Trauma experts emphasize the importance of trying to maintain structure in the classroom even if the lesson plan is not delivered. A routine provides a level of certainty and comfort, which is often temporarily lost after a traumatic event. It also helps minimize obsessive discussion by students that can increase distress. Remember, not all students are similarly affected, depending on how well they know the deceased.
Identify students in need of further assessment and support.
Often students who are struggling with the death of a peer or teacher can feel they want to end their own lives. If they say things like, “I just want to die” or “I feel like such a burden,” ask students to tell you more, listen for a bit, then say, “This is serious. I feel concerned about you.” You can then say, “We should go talk to [school counselor’s name] to see if additional support would be helpful. Let’s walk down there now together.” You should go with the student to connect him or her with help; you don’t want to leave a vulnerable student alone.
Guide a discussion about grief and death with your class.
Research has shown that talking about suicide does not cause people to attempt suicide. Your students will likely be consumed by the topic of how the person died and what it means. When you facilitate a class discussion, clearly state that whatever someone says deserves a moment of grace and that people feel how they feel.
Avoid discussions and graphic descriptions of the method, and limit the time talking about suicide to under ten minutes. Emphasize that thoughts of suicide are treatable and seeking help is a show of strength. Let your students know what school resources are available and have the crisis text line clearly visible in the classroom.
Students can talk about the person who died by sharing stories of how they were special. Other good discussion topics include emotions and healthy coping strategies for grief and loss.
Try to dispel rumors by explaining that they can be distressing to the family. During the conversation, don’t use the phrase committed suicide. It’s not a crime, but an act of despair. Died by suicide, or took his life are appropriate phrases. Leading a mindfulness activity, a mental health check-in, or activities focused on self-care in stressful situations are all appropriate elements to add to a classroom discussion. Also, keep your classroom rules consistent and don’t allow students on their devices in class.
What if the parents don’t want the cause of death disclosed? A cause of death is unlikely to stay secret in a school community. While educators have to respect the family’s wishes, teachers can lead conversations in the classroom by saying: “The family is not saying how their child died. But you know what you have heard, and what you think. How does that change your reaction if you think that she died
Allow students to share their ideas for memorializing.
Write down ideas for memorials and share them with administration and the wellness team. Students need to feel they are part of the process. Your school should have a policy that states all deaths are treated with equal respect and memorializing. For example, participating in a community fundraising or awareness project is a healthy way to put grief into action.
Allow a class discussion on what to do about the “empty desk syndrome.”
Most experts recommend waiting at least a week after the memorial to reassign seating. However, teachers can involve students in planning how to respectfully move or remove the desk. This helps students be part of a collective decision-making process. For example, students could draft a statement emphasizing what made the student who died by suicide special and make a commitment to eradicate suicide in their memory.
One teacher of a small class made a schedule for students who wanted to take turns and sit at the student’s desk that week, which was exactly what this class needed.
Make sure you honor your own grief journey.
You need support, too. Let students know you are seeing a counselor or attending a support group. That way you are modeling help-seeking as being a positive step for managing adversity.
One chemistry teacher I talked to told me she was struggling on a particular day after a student suicide and opted to hold a lab instead of her planned lecture and told her students the din of their conversation was comforting to her.
Showing up and helping kids process grief and loss after a suicide in the school community might be one of the most challenging aspects of your teaching career and at the same time, one of the most rewarding because that connection helps you heal, too. Parents can adapt and utilize these strategies at home, recognizing that the most important aspect is listening and sitting with a child’s pain instead of a trying to fix what can’t be fixed. Please note that with certain cultures or situations, these talking points may need to be amended to suit the populations you serve.
Suicide Prevention Is Everyone’s Responsibility
1.) If you know someone at imminent risk of suicide or hurting another person, call 911 or the local emergency number.
2.) Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
3.) If possible, remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
4.) Listen to the person without judgment.
5.) If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help:
• Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
• Crisis Text Line: 741-741
• Crisis Line for LGBTQ Youth: 1-866-488-7386
• Crisis Text Line for LGBTQ Youth: 678-678
• Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860
Photo: Manuela Durson