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My Experience with Grieving High School Students

Throughout my career as a high school teacher, I have often found that the way that death is handled at the school level is quite sterile and impersonal.

Just recently, a very close colleague at the school I worked at passed away very suddenly. He died of a brain aneurysm on a Sunday evening leading into the last week of the semester. Due to social media and word of moth, the knowledge that he died quickly circulated among the school the following day. His grade 11 students, whom he was most close to, were deeply affected. I did not come into school the next day, as I was in shock and deeply distressed (he was one of my closest friends, and we worked alongside each other for about 20 years).

Although the administration realized that the news of his passing was already out, they did not want teachers to say anything about what happened until they followed all protocols in place with the school board. That being said, the announcement of his passing was not officially relayed to the students or parents until the next day. The board produced a ‘script’ for teachers and administration to refer to if students asked particular questions--it was all so cold and sterile. Grief counsellors were brought in and his three classes were moved to the library where they could console each other and meet with the counsellors if they chose to. The big oversight that occurred was that on the day after his death, students went to class like any other day with the full knowledge that their teacher had died.

Seeing a supply teacher in their teacher's place and being in this intimate space really triggered the students. Many were deeply distressed and upset. They should not have gone to his classes at all the first day and many of these students reached out to me and were very sad and traumatized--to them being in his classrooms was like being at a crime scene.

The school scrambled trying to still conduct business as usual with exams, yet many of his students were in no shape to study or do exams at all. Some exemptions were made and the students who he was currently teaching did not have to write exams.

Former students who he had previously taught did in fact have to write exams. I was also not able to carry out regular school activities, as I was also very affected and in shock. I went into the school at the end of the week ,and I packed up this teacher’s room and office space. I left instructions that posters and books belonging to this teacher could be distributed among some of his students if they were interested. Following a small memorial service that did not include his students I inquired if there might not be some kind of a memorial at the school for the students to perhaps obtain some understanding and closure.

However, due to all of the protocols which include the desire to not ‘trigger’ the students, I do not think any kind of a memorial will be held at school. In fact, when I asked a second time, I received no response from the administration. His students have reached out to me; they are very sad and many are still grieving. Some have even said that they feel lost and numb. In my experience, death is not handled properly at the school level. The school checks off the boxes, has a space and time to grieve ( which is only about a day) and then if students need to still see someone that is kind of on their own time and initiative.

I have also dealt with many students who have lost parents or siblings through my years teaching. For the most part, students are very reluctant to share and often have misplaced emotions. A student I taught last semester used humour when discussing her deceased father. I truly do not think that there is enough education about dying and death for young people. Teenagers feel awkward discussing these topics and seem to shy away from speaking about these big feelings especially among their peers.

I have also had the unfortunate experience of seeing the fallout from a death by suicide. In this case, grief counsellors are present, again for a short duration, and teachers are often given scripts to read or to refer to when dealing with questions that students might have.

I honestly believe that there is a deficit in what is available at the high school level for teenagers who are affected by death and dying. There is a lack of real personal or authentic caring - things are always so scripted and seemingly insincere. Education and acceptance among death is uncomfortable enough in their young lives they have very little to draw from.

HHA's next virtual Parents & Guardians Death Café is on Thursday, September 7th @ 7:00PM. If you are interested in learning how you can intentionally help the children in your life by talking about death openly and comfortably with them, you can register to attend here.


Antonia Hatzifotis is an HHA death doula candidate. She is also a recently retired educator who spent nearly 30 years teaching high school. She continues to work with children as a tutor in the Halton Hills area.

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