Death is a difficult topic for any person to deal with; the closer the relationship, the more difficult it can be to deal with the loss. Younger people have even more challenges due to their lack of maturity. As a result, schools have a large challenge in helping their students to deal with the loss of one of their peers. What can schools do to aid the teenage students in working through the loss of a fellow student?
People respond to death in any number of ways. When a person that is close to an individual dies, it makes death that much more real and reminds the person involved of how tenuous life can be. Being reminded of one’s limited time on Earth produces various emotional responses that can be difficult to bring under control. The less mature an individual, the less experience an individual has with death and dying, the more difficult it will be for him or her to properly deal with the death of someone close. When a peer dies, it drives home the reality that death can come at any time. Lack of emotional maturity can lead to improper responses unless there is a system in place that enables the individual to deal with powerful, new, and unexpected emotions in a positive manner.
In order for schools to enable teenagers to cope with the death of a fellow student, the school must help them to walk through an appropriate process of dealing with death. The process must begin with helping the students to understand that death is an inevitable part of life and therefore coping with it is a natural process. Death must not be seen as a strange or foreign thing, but as a common event that happens to all people.
Though the death of a fellow teenager is uncommon because of the young age, the response to dealing with it is the same as for a person of any age. The death of an older person and a teenager both result in feelings of loss that must be worked through. The unexpected nature of the death of a fellow teenager must not be allowed to cause the students mourning his or her loss to lose touch with the reality that death eventually touches all people and can come at any age. The more that teenagers accept death as normal, the more likely they will be able to respond in rational ways to work through the grief and loss.
Frustration and anger are regular ways that people respond to death. The teenage mind will be tempted to take these feelings out on others in a desire to be free of the negative feelings which they invoke. Schools need to offer appropriate outlets where these feelings can be vented safely and in a way that is helpful in bringing healing for the student. Counselors should be available to lead students through the negative feelings that arise when one close to them has died and help them to focus these feelings into positive pursuits. Since teenagers do not have the emotional maturity necessary, they need mature professionals who can direct them along ways of healing and strengthening. Giving students the time necessary to express honestly what they are feeling will over time produce the kind of healing that will allow students to overcome the loss of a fellow student and move forward in a healthy and focused manner.
Teenagers are still developing both physically and emotionally. They are not yet fully developed human beings and therefore lack the resources to appropriately handle the death of someone close to them. Schools must help students not to blame themselves for what has happened. Often students may feel bad about having said something negative to or about the student who has died or feel bad about having treated the dead student poorly. Such feelings of remorse can lead to following a sequence of events that can only lead the student into greater feelings of despair. Death can bring intense sober feelings and teenagers who are unused to working through them may be led to act out these feelings in unhealthy ways. Schools need to be on the alert for other students who may react to the death of one of their own by desiring to end their own lives. Suicide prevention and hotlines must be available to get students help before they go down a dark path. Intervention is necessary in the lives of at risk students to enable them to cope appropriately with the dark feelings produced by the death of a fellow student and help them to see life as worth living.
Schools must be willing to take as much time as is needed to enable students to return to a place of normality. Though life will never be the same, the student involved is dead and will not come back, the school must find a way to help its students find a new normalcy. This can involve honoring the dead student in some way in order to acknowledge the loss and make it a part of the life of the school moving forward. Schools must not be seen as trying to forget the student who has died or to push that student’s memory out of existence. The mature adult personnel of a school must set the example for the teenagers to follow. By treating the memory of the dead student with respect, continuing to include that memory as necessary, and accepting the reality of the student’s death, the leaders of a school will lead the students to come to a place of accepting the new reality and living within it.
Death is a difficult topic for all people. Immature teenage minds have an even more difficult chore in working through the loss of a fellow student. The death of a young person adds another layer of difficulty in coping with his or her death. Schools have the responsibility to help students walk through a process by which they will come to a healthy acceptance of the reality of the loss, express negative feelings in an appropriate manner, and be able to move on in life with the memory of the lost student in a positive place in their memory. In doing so, schools and the mature adults who lead them will help students to grow in their ability to deal with tragedy, grow from it, and develop into mature, responsible adults.