On the Death of a Student

I like to think that I’m not easily shocked but that’s just what I like to think.  The reality is that when blindly struck, I’m just as much at a loss as anyone else.  Reading the email that informed me of the passing away of a student sucked the breath out of me, today.  I’ll avoid further clich├ęs, but it hit hard to say the least.  What follows is my process.  I’m not looking for sympathy; I’m not trying to make this about me.  I’m processing and found this to be the means by which I could do it and also serve a higher purpose of maybe opening up dialogue with other educators now or in the future that must grapple with such sad events.

He was an older student, a vet, and finishing up his education before moving on to new opportunities.   He was a student with whom I had enjoyed several conversations with before and after the class.  I appreciated his engagement with the course, but also with life altogether.  He had opinions and he liked to challenge me, his peers, and himself.  He was the student you could count on to engage in the class discussions, even when he might not have done all the readings.  I enjoyed his presence, attention, and respect in the classroom and beyond.    He is not the first student I’ve had in class pass away, but he is the one I’ve felt deepest.  Largely because I had connected with him and saw someone taking control of his life.  He was the epitome of the types of students we serve at our school.

Before Class

 He was also a student whom I was to have in a class later today.  The communication of his passing and the realization of why his seat would be vacant left a giant pit in my stomach.  The shock of his death hit me but I can at least abstractly understand and accept death.  However, as an instructor, more is asked of me than just acknowledging it.  I had to consider how to handle it within class.  Mention it?  Don't mention it?  If so, at the beginning or end?  How much to tell (of what little I knew) and what might be invading the respect for his passing (of which I continually grappled with even writing this post)?  What do I say and how do I respect all parties (myself, his memory, his family, the school, and the students) involved?

The classroom is a community and I am one of its leaders (not often the only one, but a major one to say the least).  It seems clear to at least acknowledge his death.  He was a part of this community and connected to all of us.  But how much to engage my students with the event?  It’s a challenging question. I battle with it, because regardless of how others relate or understand his passing, within the confines of that classroom, he was a presence.  It’s funny, when you take attendance and recognize if only by a check mark the presence of each and every person in a room, that also means you acknowledge their absence.

After Class

Hard.  I knew it would be, but there were five moments that struck hardest.

I always arrive early to class by 10-20 minutes.  It gives me opportunity to interact and chat with my students.  They are a mixture of students from different backgrounds and at different stages in their academics and their lives.  They share their thoughts and experiences (even book and movie recommendations) and sometimes, their excitement or moans about the reading for that day.  This is part of that community we’ve formed and a part that was this student missing from today.  So when we began talking and enjoying a bit of camaraderie over some silly situation or joke, I caught myself laughing.  And what happens so often, several thoughts hit at once in some form of inner monologue.  Thought #1:  It’s a sad occasion, you shouldn’t be laughing.  Thought #2:  He is the type of person who would want people enjoying themselves, not lamenting.  Thought #3:  You should tell them now.  Thought #4:  Just cancel class, you can’t handle this today.  Thought #5:  They won’t care or it will wash off them 5 minutes after they leave class so why bother.  I’m sure there were several more—these are only the ones I remember.

The second moment was harsher and perhaps surreal like I’d been momentarily transported into a Stalinist fantasy.  I log attendance through the school’s learning management system on the computer.  As I brought up the attendance to mark students as present, his name had already been removed.  I know that the school may have heard the day before and only informed me of it earlier this day, but it felt like within hours, he had been erased from our collegiate memory.  This struck chords of anger mixed with further sadness. There is no reason for him to be listed still but his silent withdrawal from my roster was irking.  I suppose if I did attendance in a book, drawing the line through his name—through his row—would be just as emotionally perplexing.

Throughout the class, I found echoes of sadness and I know that my form suffered significantly (that is not to say I was concerned with my presentation, but I could palpably feel it wearing on me and keeping me from fully engaging my students with the energy I usually maintain).  I rolled towards the end of class (after talking with a few dear colleagues, this sounded as the most appropriate time to talk about it).  But transitions (of which I have never been good) of this sort are frazzling for anyone.

To be truthful, I feel like I failed them.  I feel like I should have been able to prime them, inform them, and possibly help them wax philosophical about the meanings this may or may not have in their own lives.  Not necessarily something grand, but give them something more than just telling them, “I was informed by the school that your classmate died on Saturday.”  I felt like I did early on when I was teaching:  I gave them information, but not sufficient context and meaning.  I don’t even know that I could do so, but I really wished I did.

This only led to the fourth hard moment.  As I finished and was rather at a loss of what to say, I saw the mixture of impact.  Frowns, looks of indifference, looks of surprise and within all of it, some frantic looks.  We as a community had entered into uncertain space.  After all, we were a community of learners and this was not in the syllabus.  How do we manage grief or unexpected emotions in environments that we’re not used to dealing with such emotions?   We often seek escape to a place where it is safe to feel or experience such emotions—less vulnerable places.

The awkward silence hung a bit and I realized there was no place for this to go.  Though in hindsight, I wonder if the awkward silence needed to hang until they filled it, not me.  Instead, I told them they could go if they wanted or stay and talk.  None took me up on the offer.  They largely exited the room faster than normal—no lingerers to engage me as usually happens.

Within 30 seconds, I was left with an empty class; the final hard moment of the experience.

Again, the language I’m using here is not to imply I’m beating myself up.  I’m deliberating and pondering.  I’m trying to make meaning of my experience and engage with others or prepare others for such challenges.  We instructors are so often engaged talking about the mundane frustrations of our classes (quality of writing, students’ dispositions, and student behavior).  It seems like tragedy is the only time we engage with these issues, which seems to be the worse times to try to figure such things out.  I hope that by opening this up dialogue, others will be more prepared or feel more supported when such things happen.

Your thoughts, your stories, your processes and anything else are welcomed.

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  1. Dear Lance,
    I'm so sorry to hear about the loss of this student. Like you, I've also experienced this tragedy, and I know it can call up a strange assortment of emotions.
    The first students I ever lost were not my students but were students at the school where I was teaching. Three freshmen girls skipped class and went on a ride with a couple older boys in a speeding car with the donut on one of the wheels. It was a horrible accident and the school went into deep mourning (this was a high school). I remember finding out when I got to school. I was walking in with another teacher -- one who had the three girls in class -- when we were both told. Since I didn't know them, my own personal response was sympathetic but somewhat detached. The woman beside me, though . . . you might not believe in "spiritual" stuff or "lifeforce energy" but I felt that woman's shock, horror, and grief hit me like a wave. That whole day, I wasn't sure if I should try to conduct class or just let students be. I tried playing music, but the students said that it was depressing. We did work instead, and that little bit of normalcy seemed to give them some emotional relief.
    Another student passed away after the course was over, and I was informed by one of the students in the class. We shared a few heartfelt emails about it. She had been a wonderful student and person.
    And, I've also had the experience of losing a student with whom I had shared some antagonism. That was the worst, I think. It was hard for me to reconcile my feelings about who this student had been in my class and his loss, which affected a sizable portion of the student body.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I know it's hard to do so.

  2. Hi Tricia,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts. These are curious moments of reflection and not often the ones we expect when we step into a classroom. A colleague of mine emphasized what I guess is a valid point, that it's in some ways nice to know that we don't have substantial expereince with such moments (for what that may imply). But I still think about how to engage with the topic in a meaningful way. Like you, I pondered how to move through the class space in a way that normalizes but doesn't ignore the absence.

    Thanks again!


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