Helping Children Cope With Grief
The Role of the School After a Student Suicide
There are few things more upsetting to a community than when a teen takes his own life. Here are several things school officials and teachers can do in the wake of this kind of tragedy to make sure students feel supported.
- Closely monitor students who are thought to be “at risk” since a depressed teen is at even greater risk of suicide after a peer commits suicide. Some teens turn to alcohol or drugs as a way of coping with this kind of tragedy. Parents should be advised to watch for unusual behavior in their teens, and teachers who suspect any risky behavior should refer those students to the school psychologist.
- Talk about the suicide openly and matter-of-factly. Educators and parents should work together to convey consistent messages about the circumstances of the death and reduce confusion and misinformation. Hiding the facts of the suicide from students can result in anxiety and mistrust of the adults upon whom they should be able to rely for reassurance. Explaining the death in a matter-of-fact way can also prevent sensationalizing it.
- Suicide should be explained in terms of an unrecognized or untreated mental illness. It should be explained (ideally by a professional therapist) that people with a mental illness often hide their pain even from those who are closest to them. And even if they were in treatment, some people can still die of suicide while seeing a therapist, just as some people can die of cancer even though they are seeing an oncologist.
- Keep checking in with students. An event like the suicide of a classmate takes time for kids to process and the fallout — academic, social and emotional — may unfold over several months.
- Some kids, whether they were close to the student who died or not, may feel guilty — as if they could or should have known something was wrong or could have done something to stop the suicide. It is important to stress that this is a common response when a death is hard to accept, but that there is nothing they could have done personally to change the situation.
- Even though the person who died committed suicide, a school-wide memorial that celebrates his life is still a good idea so that his classmates can remember more than just the way he died. Students who want to should be encouraged to participate by speaking, sharing memories, making video montages, etc. It is important, however, not to go into too much detail about the death itself or to glamorize the death. Death is supposed to be scary and something we want to avoid. Talking too much about the details of a suicide can take away some of this scariness and make other students in the community more likely to consider suicide if they are already depressed.
- By giving kids opportunities to share their feelings in a range of settings (both one-on-one and in a group) and by talking about the suicide openly, schools can help students put the death in perspective and heal in a healthy way.