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Responding to a Tragedy

Tragedy and trauma, whether internal or external to the university, can affect our entire campus community. This is no truer than with the death of a student. When a student dies, the effects are frequently felt in the classroom, particularly in classes where the student was a member, or in classes where friends of the student are present. Regardless of whether or not class members knew the student, the effects of this loss can still be felt in many classrooms across campus.

The following is meant to offer suggestions for what you, as a faculty member, might do to help your students and yourself in the grieving and healing process. Be aware, however, that there is no "right" way to respond to loss: each person deals with loss differently. Different reactions can occur based on religious beliefs, personal experience, and an individual's own emotional state prior to the event.

What you can do

1. Keep yourself informed - get the facts. Students will be looking to you for information and support. Be ready to dispel any rumors or confusion that may surface.

2. Plan your class response:

  • How well-known was the student?
  • Was the student in your class, or do class members know the student?
  • Was the death expected?
  • Where and how did it occur?
  • Has the campus community experienced other traumatic events recently?

Deaths that directly affect class members, are unexpected, on campus, or that follow other recent tragic events can be particularly traumatic and may require more in-class attention.

3. If the tragedy was a student suicide, do not glamorize it in class. You may wish to emphasize that:

  • It did not have to happen
  • Such death is a form of giving up
  • There are campus or community resources available to help
  • Students can use these resources

4. Don't be afraid to ask how your students are doing in relation to the recent tragedy, and let your discussion of the recent events follow from the response(s) you receive. Consider opening class discussion by

  • Sharing your own feeling of loss
  • Offering your own remembrances of the student(s)
  • Allowing class members to offer their own remembrances, if they choose to do so

5. Remember that you are modeling an appropriate response, and that students may look to you for guidance, but reassure them that each person responds differently to grief and loss.

Remember that you don't need to do anything - just be genuine and attentive, and listen. 

6. Try to return the class to a normal schedule as quickly as possible. It may seem strange for "life to go on" after such a tragedy, but establishing normalcy can be a great comfort to yourself and your students.

7. Be aware that the effects of the tragedy can remain (and possible affect class functioning) for an extended period of time. Students more directly affected by the tragedy may need to ask for extra time to complete assignments, delay exams, attend memorial events, etc. While making accommodations in response to the tragedy, be certain to maintain the professional nature of the faculty/student relationship and the consistency of academic expectations

8. Do not be afraid to refer any student about whom you are concerned to the Counseling Center. The Counseling Center staff members are also available to provide support and suggestions to faculty on dealing with affected students and classes. To contact a counselor, please call 508.999.8648 or 8650 and relay the urgency of your need for a consultation.

9. Consider bringing information on grief, trauma, loss, and campus resources to class for students. Materials can be found on the Counseling Center's website.

10. Consider giving yourself and your class the opportunity to express your sadness and condolences to the family of the student or students. Consider:

  • Sending a card from the class as a whole
  • Allowing students to write individual notes to the family which you gather and send
  • Sending any course work you have from the student(s) to the family/families

Please consult with your department chair about these responses to be certain they fall within the family's wishes.

Adapted from article provided by the National Mental Health and Education Center, the National Association of School Psychologists, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Counseling Services, the Center for Instructional Development and Research at the University of Washington, and the Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching at Western Kentucky University, as well as the GW University Counseling Center.

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