Last year, in the last few months before summer, one of my students died. She was twelve years old.
It’s been about five months since her death, and I still don’t quite know how to talk about it. I was never prepared to encounter such a difficulty. I’ve been told by many people that it’s rare, and several teachers I know have never experienced this. It is, without a doubt, the worst part of this job.
One of the teachers in my department had been through this, with two different students, and we spoke a lot during that first week. During one of those conversations, she said, “With this job, you don’t just sign up to teach them. You sign up to love them.” That’s always stayed with me, and has always felt particularly powerful to me. When there is the death of a student, it will be painful, regardless of who that student was. It doesn’t even need to be a student in your class; at the end of the day, your job is to teach and protect kids, and one of the kids in your school is gone. A lot of teachers in my school grieved that week, even without having known my student.
I was given the news first, being one of her teachers, and had about an hour to process the information before I had to tell my next class the information. Other teachers offered to cover my class if I thought I wouldn’t be able to get through the news. I turned them down. It wasn’t that I was confident I would be okay; I just didn’t want someone other than their teacher giving them news like that.
We gave the news in the following class, so that all students would find out at once, rather than by gossip spreading. It was excruciatingly difficult; most kids, by the afternoon, were already in tears when class began. I decided to take give the day to the students, telling them they could work on missing or late assignments if they felt up to it, but really giving them the space and time to process the information.
That day was painful. The remainder of the week was messy, hazy. I did not know if I was grieving too much, or too little. I did not know if I was handling the information very well or poorly, and did not know if I was helping or hurting the students with how I treated class. I felt, in the days following her death, like I’d forgotten how to teach. All I knew how to do was tell my students I cared about them.
Dealing with her death has lingered with me, and I am still learning how to process and heal. How to teach, how to be in control of the classroom in the wake of such an event, was a learning experience for me. Learning how to take care of myself when I felt suddenly overwhelmed with responsibility for the students, as if again for the first time, was enormously difficult. I will likely write separately about all of those in turn, as I learn how to write about them. For anyone who may have experienced, or may be experiencing currently, the death of a student in their school: I am sorry, and I hope you are okay. Take care of your kids, but also take care of yourself. Remember that you are allowed to grieve, too, in so many ways, in the ways that feel right for you to grieve. Let yourself be human. It will get better with time.