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By Jamie Saltamachi, LSW, Imagine Program Associate
One of the greatest fears that I had as a school social worker was experiencing the death of a student. As I returned to the school to begin my third year, I was called in by the superintendent to respond to the death of one of my students who had completed suicide. To some extent, as school professionals, we know the risk. We are regularly bombarded with tragic news of mass shootings and community violence. We show up to work each day for “our kids” and do our best to protect them, guide them and support them. School administrators work tirelessly to prepare for the worst; they create policies and procedures, practice safety drills with students, and train staff on how to respond in a crisis. The reality is that most schools are not prepared to deal with the death of a student. Many of us can go through our entire undergraduate psychology programs and graduate courses in counseling or social work without a single class on death and dying or grief and loss. Although we often receive formal training to prepare for safety threats, there is no training to prepare us on how to respond after the death of a student. This lack of training is even more apparent when we lose a student to suicide.
Suicide carries a tremendous amount of stigma, especially when working with children and teens. Parents and educators often report that they do not know how to talk to their children or students about suicide or have fears about “putting the idea in their head” and as a result, these critical conversations do not happen. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in children ages 10-18 and the 2nd leading cause of death in ages 18-25. The reality of suicide loss is rarely discussed in the school environment, which leaves staff feeling inadequately prepared if they do experience this type of loss in their community. In the wake of a suicide loss, staff are often scrambling to find support for their students, parents and for themselves. It is crucial for school professionals to develop a postvention (an intervention conducted after a death) plan for how to respond in the event of a student death so that they are prepared if this happens in their community.
When a student dies by suicide, the responsibility of developing a postvention plan typically falls on a school counselor or social worker, who is not required to have formal expertise or training on grief and loss. Many administrators, counselors and social workers are not even aware that resources like Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss exist. I was fortunate to have the support of the staff at Imagine, who were able to offer their expertise in developing a plan to support the family, students, and staff who were all grieving the loss. Imagine provided grief education and support to the entire school staff, workshops for parents, and support groups for the child’s peers. Providing comprehensive postvention helps to facilitate healing, decrease negative effects of suicide exposure, and reduces suicide risk in the child’s peers.
When a student dies, the school will be compelled to respond in a meaningful way. The first step in any type of postvention is to meet with the immediate family of the deceased student so that their wishes are respected, and their needs are being met. Some of the other important things that I learned while responding to a suicide loss as a school professional are:
1. Create space for mourning.
Students want an outlet to remember their peer. Whether it is an artistic project or ongoing support groups, students need methods for expressing their feelings. Even after a memorial or funeral, students will still experience grief bursts during the school day when they are missing their peer. It is crucial to identify a physical space for students to go take a break when they are experiencing big feelings.
2. Tell the truth.
In the age of social media, news spreads quickly and children and teens often have information before parents/educators. Schools should inform parents about the loss first and provide resources for talking to their child about the loss. It is important to tell students the truth about the suicide because it allows us to have a dialogue and explore how they are feeling about the loss.
3. Identify Safe People.
Although it is important to return to routine after a loss, students will need ongoing support and outlets for their grief. It is important for them to have adults that they can go to speak with about their feelings outside of the school counselor. Teachers, aides, librarians, coaches, cafeteria workers should be trained on how to support grieving children and teens so that grieving students always have someone to turn to when they need support.
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To contact Imagine visit www.imaginenj.org or email Jamie at jamie @ imaginenj.org