Thursday, March 27, 2014

How to Deal When the Unthinkable Happens

On Tuesday the unthinkable happened.

A fellow teacher passed away.

He was not just a coworker but also a very good friend.

He was the proctor for Model UN which I helped out with. The kids in that group got to know him really well so they are taking it the hardest.

I am 25 years old and I have never had a close friend pass away. I can't image how I would have handled it at the age of 15, 16, or 17.

For the past two days, these kids have tried to go to class and tried to take tests. However, something will happen where they break down. Either someone will say something that reminds them of him or someone will do something that makes them sad/angry whatever. They show up at my door in tears not knowing how to handle themselves.

They have no idea how to handle their feelings but they know I feel like they do so they come to me. From listening to their stories, so many people don't know how to handle them. They try but they just don't get it which ends up hurting them more.

I am no expert when it comes to this situation. However, there are a few things I learned that are helpful in dealing with students in this situation and I figured I would share what I learned.

5 Pieces of Advice For How to Handle Students Going Through a Tragedy

  1. Don't force them to talk about it.

    So far, two of the girls have come crying to me because a teacher figured that the best way to deal was to force them to talk about it. Although it is helpful for the class as a whole, those that are the most effected will hate it. They feel like what you (or their classmates) are saying is superficial. If they were close to the teacher, they know those that weren't. It is actually more hurtful for them to hear someone else try to work through their pain. It may sound narcissistic but these students know who understands their pain and who doesn't. They aren't about to share with someone who doesn't understand. 

    On the same note, if it isn't a school wide tragedy, still don't force them to talk about it. They will talk with those they feel comfortable with. The only question that is acceptable is "Do you have someone to talk to?" If they say yes, then let it be and just keep an eye on them.

  2. If they are actually struggling, they will tell you.

    Some teachers have kept moving on because they assume that some people are going to try and take advantage of the situation. They will only say they are hurting in front of the entire class to try and get sympathy points or get out of work.

    Although these students (sadly) exist, those that are actually struggling will come and talk to you. They will tell you "I can't focus" or "I tried but I can't bring myself to do it." They will speak up because the teacher/adult they are talking to about everything will tell them to do that. If they don't come, the teacher/adult they are talking to will. Either way, you'll know. Those that just want attention, will be too afraid to tell you in person. So please believe the students when they tell you, in private, that they are struggling.
  3. Give some flexibility...

    If they say they couldn't do the homework or that they can't take the test, be understanding. They are trying because they do want things to be normal again but sometimes it becomes too much. If they ask for it, allow for some flexibility.
  4. ...but don't completely let them off the hook

    Don't say "oh don't worry about taking the test. It won't count" That isn't what they need. They need you to change the due date or test date not give them a pity party. As I said, they want normalcy but they don't know how to get it. By still making sure they do their work, even if it is a little later, that will help. Letting them off the hook completely just reminds them that they had a tragedy.
  5. Remember that they are teenagers

    I am 25. I have dealt with loss before. Nothing this hurtful but I have dealt with loss. When I first mourned for someone it was in college. Although I'm struggling, I know people are there to help me. I know that what they may do might not be the best but I know it is them trying to help. I know that the best way to move on from something is to try and move on with my daily life. Even if it seems impossible right now. I have to try.

    Teenagers instinctively think no one understands them. They instinctively think that everything is harder than it is and that if they can't figure it out, it isn't worth their time. Add this natural/biological outlook on life to a tragedy and you have a huge problem. So many adults have tried to act like nothing is wrong around them. They still get upset with them when they walk into class late. They won't let them leave the classroom to have a breakdown because, in the teacher's minds, they should just move on.

    Yes, you can treat an adult this way but a teenager you can't. They are trying but they are going to mess up more than an adult would in this situation. You have to remember that its okay. By assuming they should just continue with their everyday lives is the worst thing you can do for them. Even worse than letting them off the hook. Yes, you may have experienced loss before and know how to handle it but they haven't. This was unexpected. This was someone they loved. This was someone they felt understood them. You can't expect them to just "move on" no matter what you say. Teenagers blow emotions up. This is why they cry if someone makes fun of them. They don't know how to brush the little things off and keep going so why on Earth would you expect them to know how to brush off the death of someone they loved?

A death like this is hard. Teenagers struggle to cope and if you happen to be the one that they come to for help, just listen. Sometimes, they may want to talk about something else. Sometimes they may just want to cry. Other times they may just need you to be in the room with them. Just be there for them so they know they aren't alone.

Rest in Peace Patrick. You'll be missed. 

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