Helping Students Deal With Loss Of A Peer: How High Schools Teachers Can Provide Support After Tragedy

Students in high schools all across America deal with death in one form or another, but it is especially earth-shattering when one of their peers dies prematurely. The loss of a friend and classmate who was at the same stage and age as the other students can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, self-doubt, and anger. It's difficult to process the loss of an energetic youth—youth today embody potential and exuberance: they are just so alive. Teachers can help direct the shock and grief when a student passes away. With the right approach, schools can be sources of healing and comfort for the study body.

1. Provide sources of communication to process the event. 

Students often feel compelled to talk about the event that caused the students' passing. Unlike the deaths of other, more personal relations, like a parent or grandparent, the loss of a peer is something that the entire student body can share in common, and many students will draw closer together in the face of the tragedy. Encourage all positive discussions, and make it known that you are available to speak with any student who feels the need to talk about how they feel. Encourage students to see the guidance counselor as needed.

Remind students that only positive interactions are acceptable in public areas. Those who need to share private stories or express complex negative feelings about the deceased should speak with a counselor. This can happen if the student who died was a bully, an addict, or an outcast. Sharing negative experiences in the public sphere can cause division and heighten feelings of anger. 

2. Reach out to students who were close to the deceased. 

These students may begin to struggle socially, academically, or emotionally. If they were with the student at the time of the death, they can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or feel intense survivor's guilt for living while their friend is dead. Many may feel as though they ought to have died in the place of their friend. Take the time as an educator to meet personally with any of your students who are particularly impacted by the loss. Adjust academic expectations and speak with them candidly about their needs.

3. Create a student memorial that allows grief to be made tangible.

The full expression of grief for teens often needs to be visible and concrete. They benefit from actions that help bring healing and closure, so the opportunity to participate in some sort of memorial service as a student body can be incredibly healing. The students themselves can often craft a poignant tribute to the fallen student without much direction from the staff. For example, one group of students who lost a friend in a shooting created a Facebook memorial event, and all the students wore black shirts for a week in honor of her memory. These efforts should be encouraged, even if they deviate from normal school attire, such as a uniform. Candlelight vigils, special songs, a talent show, or a home football game in honor of the student are other gestures that have significant meaning to a grieving student body. 

4. Encourage students to make use of personal grief counseling.

After the aftermath of the tragedy, the gradual normalcy the school will return. Most students will be fine, but those students who were most affected could still need greater intervention and help. Be sure to take note of any significant behavior changes in your students; failing grades, changes in appearance, differing demeanors, and increased drug and alcohol use are all worrisome signs. These students should see a grief counselor. Express your concerns to your administrators and to the student's parents to make sure they have access to the help they need. For more information, contact a center that offers grief counseling for teens.