Author: Danielle Serina
Every year at least a week or two before the new school year starts, I enter my classroom with a variety of emotions: excitement, hope, fear, worry, and energy - all of which motivate me for the rest of the year. Through the school doors, I carry the new lessons, activities, and decorations I have accumulated over the summer weeks. My goals have been carefully planned around each of the new students I will meet and how I will ensure success for every one of them. I have considered where they will sit, and how I will motivate them to see that they are capable of accomplishing beyond their own expectations. With all of that, I also bring the memories of those students whom I loved but lost. I see their faces upon entering the threshold of my classroom every year and think about all that could have been, but never was, for each of them. Along with my excitement for the year, I bring with me a pang of ache, because in doing what we must do to be effective educators, we must be vulnerable.
Loss is an inevitable part of life, something we should all be prepared to experience. In college, I took endless classes to enlighten and prepare me for working with students. We planned lessons, theorized discipline, and read educational philosophies to mold ourselves into the educators we hoped to one day become. Losing a student to death was not on that list. This is not to say that it is the fault of the education programs for not carefully preparing teacher candidates for this experience. It is an experience that no one can ever really prepare for, but one that many will face at some point in their careers. I have lost seven students in my fourteen years as a teacher. I offered the support I could for my students who were struggling with the death of a friend and attended memorial services, but many times I forgot the importance of dealing with my own loss.
Strong relationships lead us to be effective educators and these relationships allow us to help students achieve success. Creating strong relationships means opening ourselves up to care about our students. Students aren’t just names on a roster or numbers on a computer; they are the names of people we know, care about, and talk to. We listen to their stories, cheer them on, redirect their behaviors, and support their endeavors. I have laughed with my students, cried with my students, and endured huge societal changes with my students. I ask them to share life connections over literature, and I hear about all of their future hopes and dreams and often trade my own stories. Stories are what connect us as a group. I wouldn’t trade that vulnerability for anything, but it makes the death of a student all that more difficult to endure. How can we go through all of those life experiences together and not feel loss or grief when something happens to one of them?
Over the past few years, I have realized that it will never get easier to cope with the death of a beautiful, young life, but that doesn’t mean I should stop connecting and creating relationships.
It does, on the other hand, mean that I need to take the appropriate time to identify my loss and grief. Teachers need to realize that being strong for students is important, but it is also important to share the real-life grief we have with our support systems. The pain we feel when a student dies is valid and real. We don’t need to ignore it. It also means that “loss” does not have to mean “lost”. Those students may be gone from our lives but can remind us of the impact of the student-teacher relationship. Although these students have left this Earth, they are not lost to me. I will remember them every year, and I will honor them in my determination to pursue healthy, positive, and meaningful relationships with the people in my classroom. In a tragic time, where it might be easier to find despair, we can make the effort to normalize grief and support rather than ignore it.
If you or a colleague are dealing with grief from the loss of a student, please know you are not alone. People cope with grief in many different ways. Sometimes, you may just need to take care of yourself by talking to someone about how you are feeling or by spending time outdoors. Maintaining physical and mental health will allow you to deal more productively with your grief. Journaling, engaging in a hobby, or spending time with your family can also offer you solace. While there are no “right” ways to deal with grief, there are wrong ways. Your grief should not lead you down a self-destructive path. If your grief or mental health ever become too difficult to handle without professional help, there are those who can help.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers 24-hour support to aid anyone dealing with a crisis by calling 800-950-NAMI or text “NAMI” to 741741. Grief Share (https://www.griefshare.org/) will also locate support groups for you to attend where you live. Connecting with people, and not withdrawing, will allow you to continue to make deep, meaningful relationships as an educator.