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5 Tips for Teachers Supporting a Suicide Loss Survivor in Class

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These tips are not just for the teachers, role models and community leaders. It’s for anyone who knows of a student of any age who is a survivor of a suicide loss, or any trauma for that matter. And for the survivors themselves who can relate to the experiences I had and/or find themselves wishing they had people in their lives who knew these tips.

In the months leading up to my dad’s death by suicide, our family was in crisis already. I was in fifth grade, an 11-year-old overachiever who loved school and did extra assignments for fun. But as instability and fear of life at home consumed me, my eating disorder emerged, grades slipped and homework went undone.

I will never forget the day my teacher pulled me aside, put yet another failing grade in front of me, and asked me if everything was OK. I muttered something like, “I’m sorry, I will try harder,” as I put my head on my desk, as I fought back tears and tried to focus on finding the right answers.

Trauma makes memories blurred and many repressed, but I’m pretty sure she never confronted me again. I remember vaguely wishing she would, and even now, I still find myself wishing she would have asked again so that little 11-year-old me was reminded again that someone cared.

1. If you see your student behaving differently, ask them about it — and keep asking.

Their developing brains may cause them to give a snotty response or to shut down, but if they really are struggling, knowing someone cares may make them feel a little less alone and a little more secure. 

After my dad died and I came back to school, teachers made sure no one asked me questions about what happened, so everything would return to “normal.” Except nothing was ever going to be the same again. My friends drifted away from me, I felt like everyone was staring at me and when teachers said things would be “normal,” they never considered how much I needed to acknowledge what happened and how things have changed since then.

2. Acknowledge what happened.

Acknowledge that things may not be the same again, that this loss confused everyone and that in order to make sense of it and to heal, we need to have open, age-appropriate conversations where teachers and students alike address the hard questions. Tell the student this, their peers, your fellow staff — whoever you can. 

As I moved to middle school, I felt even more alone, struggled even more with eating disordered behaviors and pushed away any help that was given to me. I lived in a fantasy world where dad was called in to some undercover FBI assignment where the only way to pull it off was to fake his death (he was a retired corrections officer after all, so my 12-year-old, highly in denial mind decided this was fact). I ignored the hall passes given to me to see the school social worker. Ultimately most of middle school is a blur, but there is one thing I still remember clearly. My health teacher told parents in advance that they would be discussing suicide and depression in class. My mom spoke with her, and my teacher said she wanted to give me the option to miss class that day. I gladly accepted her offer, and was sent to the library on a mission with a friend to research something (a task meant to make sure the friend didn’t know my “secret”). I was not in a place where I could hear about suicide, and I certainly was not up for hearing questions or comments on the subject from peers. Looking back, I still am so thankful for her looking out for me.

3. Teachers, please give parents a heads up about the content you will be teaching.

Health teachers (or anyone else who addresses the topic of suicide — like literature teachers reading “Romeo and Juliet”), if possible, give parents and/or students a heads up about upcoming lessons involving mental health, suicide or any other traumas your survivor student may be triggered by. If possible/appropriate — give the student the option to sit out, take a break without needing to ask first or to go over the lesson in advance with you.

Later on, in my sophomore year, I was very depressed. My usual A’s turned to F’s, and I kept dodging one of my teachers. One day, he caught me off guard, and asked if he could talk for a minute. He wouldn’t take the late bell ringing as an excuse to walk away. He was a super strict, serious, English gentleman, who addressed everyone formally. He said, “I can see something is going on with you. Your assignments are usually excellent, but now your grades are honestly awful. I want you to know I am here to talk, and if you don’t want to talk to me, talk to someone… or write, writing is always an option, OK? I know you have been through a lot, things your peers have not, but that doesn’t mean you are alone.”  I never told anyone about the depression, but knowing he noticed and cared made me feel a tiny bit better.

3. Remind survivors of different ways to communicate what’s going on.

Sometimes speaking is too much or feels too scary. Reminding a survivor there are other ways to communicate with you or someone else they trust can be a simple but helpful way to support them.

During my  senior year of high school, I began volunteer work with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and had written about it for my college application essays. I asked my English literature professor to proofread it for me. I was scared, because I didn’t think she knew about my dad’s death, and “coming out” as a survivor was not something I did often, if at all. She asked to meet with me after class to discuss it. She asked if she could hug me, and confided in me that her husband died by suicide as well. Knowing she was still standing there teaching every day despite her past trauma, gave me that brief glimmer of hope that I could get through this too.

4. Don’t be afraid to share personal experience.

If you have personally been touched by sudden loss, suicide or mental illness, and you are willing to share that with a student who is a suicide loss survivor during a conversation with them, it may mean the world to us. Survivors can sometimes feel extremely isolated and alone in their grief, especially if they do not know of other survivors outside of their family.

As I learned how to open up to others, to share my story and my struggles, I’ve subsequently met warriors and survivors of mental illnesses and traumas. A common theme I found befriending them was that I found myself constantly wanting to “fix” them — to make sure they are as whole as they can be, so that I will know they will never leave me like my dad did. Only recently have I finally learned it is not possible for me to heal the emotional wounds of mental illness or trauma in my loved ones. Healing, recovering, overcoming — whatever you want to call it — is an individual process that no outsider can do. With this in mind, the best tip I can give to anyone who ever encounters an individual who has been through trauma is below:

5. Practice the concept of holding space for someone.

Heather Plett explains it best:

“It means we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support and let go of judgment and control.”

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via maroke.

Originally published: September 19, 2017
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