Viewpoints: How to help students in the midst of tragedy

April 24, 2018
Vincent Mireau, President, ATA Council of School Counsellors

At some point, the young people we teach will be faced with the reality that horrific events occur. In the aftermath of tragic losses, our own and those of our friends and neighbours, your students may need you. Some young people will seek out their parents’ counsel in the midst of loss. Some young folks will wisely connect with their school counsellor; other pupils will call upon you.

Whether or not you feel confident about listening, you possess the skills to be a good listener. I say this because you have made it this far: you are a teacher, one of the most skilled professionals out there. In the moment when your student wants to talk, the most important thing is to be quiet, turn toward your student, and authentically and curiously listen until it is your turn to talk (if much at all). Trust me, you will know when it is your turn.

Grief is really messy. The professional consensus is that grief is highly individual and does not happen in certain steps in a certain order. Some who grieve will want to talk about it; some will not. Some will feel lots; some will feel little. Some will need to show their thoughts and feelings; many are not so expressive. In either case, no one benefits from judgment. There is no correct way to process loss. Sometimes people have the right mix of circumstances and emotions to rapidly process losses when they happen; some people really don’t “bounce back.”

Note that while a child may be calling upon you to explain what has happened, it is fine to say that you cannot explain it. There is wisdom that a young person may want to hear from you that does not exist. At the very least, try to avoid aphorisms or idioms that trivialize the loss. Some questions have no answers. Senseless tragedies occur.

Sometimes our need for meaning can instead be satisfied by our response. Your students may be interested in rituals. They may want to explore their spirituality or lack thereof, or they may mourn the inability to go to a funeral in person. I personally believe that funerals are very much for the mourners in addition to the deceased. We need social and private rituals like vigils, tribute videos, decals on trucks and hockey sticks on porches to fill the darkness when meaning does not readily make itself known.

Your younger students may demonstrate their perspective on a tragedy in their imaginative play — realistic, confused or otherwise. They might play funeral or vehicle collision. Engage with them — step into it with them to explore their world.

Please do not punish or shame your students for doing what children do best: create imaginative play to process life’s unexplainable “stuff.” If a child is playing to process loss, consider integrating their probable admiration for first responders. The integration of loss and healing can be helpful over time.

In the same way, teenagers play using conversation. They may want to talk about dead people. Young people may need coaching about the social nuances of loss. They are likely wondering what they should  do when tragic loss happens.

Your adult listening skills and nonjudgment can be your biggest asset when helping teenagers learn social sense. If a student asks you about your spirituality, please be honest as a human being while being mindful of your power imbalance as a teacher. Be mindful that comments like “God must have wanted this” or “Just think about what you are thankful for” can
be harmful.

Encourage your students to seek out memories and to create connections. Shared memories are some of the best assets we have after we or others experience loss. It is totally acceptable to look back in happiness in the midst of profound sorrow. Happiness and sorrow are not opposites.

Grief is a process and not an event. It can require the patience of many and can seem uncontrollable. Our students may need us to explain how loss works, since they may never have experienced it. Be real. Use that helpful, protective rapport you have with your students. The experience of adversity inside the protection of an adult builds resiliency. In the midst of great loss, you can be a part of the strengthening of young people. Trust yourself; you can help. ❚

This opinion column represents the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.