Dealing with death in a school community

Posted on October 31, 2011 in Articles

Recently in the span of a few days, my 19-year-old daughter at Michigan State University was grappling with the news of two untimely deaths — one, an acquaintance, and the other, the close friend of an acquaintance. Both deaths appeared to be suicides.

It was two separate cases, two very different circumstances. The suicide aspect was not mentioned by those closest to them, but it was all over Facebook and Twitter, and staff, student and alumni at two schools were reeling.

Any death in a school community is tragic, but the emotions around a suicide are especially complicated — a knot of bewilderment, guilt, shame and raw pain.

“The circles of trauma move outward through the community,” said William Pell, executive director of Gryphon Place, which coordinates suicide prevention efforts in Kalamazoo County. “Suicide generates a different response than losing someone to cancer or a car accident. …With a suicide, you may never know why the person did it. It’s hard to understand.”

Pell said that when school officials hear about a death that may be a suicide, the first step is to confirm the cause of death with authorities.

“What people are saying on Facebook may be absolutely right,” but school officials need to check with the county medical examiner or other authority to confirm, Pell said.

The next step is for schools to arrange for “debriefing sessions” that are part grief counseling and part educational.

But school officials also need to tread lightly, he acknowledged.

“If you’ve got a family that says it wasn’t suicide, and school officials tell people it is, that can cause a firestorm,” he said.

Equally difficult, he said, is if the family acknowledges the suicide, but asks school officials not to mention it.

Yet the reality is that death by suicide is difficult to keep secret, especially in today’s world of social networking.

“It’s a difficult bind for administrators if you’ve got a whole school full of kids and faculty who are talking about it, and yet you feel an obligation to honor the family’s wishes,” he said.

Still, Pell said, in such a situation, “I would lean towards having forthright conversations and debriefings” in the school setting.

He pointed to the guidelines put out by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which has a 49-page book for schools dealing with the aftermath of a suicide.

That book, “After Suicide,” suggests when a family does not want the cause of death disclosed, a school official should explain to them that students are already talking about the death and that having more formal conversations with adults about suicide “can help keep students safe.”

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