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Personal and professional: Teachers coping with loss

Julie Dannevig and Alex Sumas

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Within recent years, the WHS community has lost a devastating number of students. In the wake of these losses, teachers are tasked with the responsibility of being a fundamental part of the schoolwide support system for students. “Every time this happens I stand in front of the faculty and I say, ‘Our kids need us now. They need us every day, but they need us now’,” said WHS Director of Guidance, Ms. Maureen Mazzarese.

“We all feel such a tremendous responsibility and we want to support our kids so, like parents, [teachers] put the kids’ needs in front of their own,” Mazzarese said.

“Every time this happens I stand in front of the faculty and I say, ‘Our kids need us now. They need us every day, but they need us now””

— Director of Guidance

Mazzarese commented on how the steps taken after a loss are structured to ensure that the needs of all are met. Many of the teachers find Mazzarese’s guidance essential to how they proceed with class instruction after a student dies.

“The guidance department, particularly Ms. Mazzarese, will email us with some materials to use and will talk to us as a whole group,” said English Teacher Ms. Nicole Scimone. “I think that expertise is so invaluable because they know what to say that makes this time a little bit different from the last time.”

When Science Teacher Ms. Kathleen Bigelow’s student died, her first instinct was to go to Ms. Mazzarese: “I arranged for [Ms. Mazzarese] to come talk to our class, to be the first one to speak to [them] and lead the way in opening up the discussion. I felt like she knew all the right things to say and I did not feel that way about myself at the time.”

Across the board, teachers seem to find that an effective way to let their students grieve is to be a source of support while allowing them to process in their own ways.

“There’s no one answer,” said Health Teacher Ms. Susan Kolesar. “My training and just my natural instinct is to go with the flow and see what the needs are at any given time. Read the room, read the students.”

Kolesar continued to say, “I like to also give students an opportunity to anonymously write down what they’re feeling to help process it and then if they so choose, to put their name on it so they can let me know what they need.” 

Scimone has a more structured approach for her classes, but she too looks out for the individual needs of her students. She starts off her classes with a personal message. “In my own experiences with grief and needing somebody to say ‘It’s okay to be upset. It’s okay to feel this way. I don’t have all the answers but I’m here to talk to,’” said Scimone, explaining the reasoning behind what she says to students. “And as long as you really have that message, even if you’re torn up a bit it’s alright, students know that it is okay [to grieve].”

After talking to the class, Scimone gives her students work to do on their own. “I think that’s really important because, as a teacher, I can then look and see who needs to step outside, who needs me to go over…who just needs a distraction. It gives me a time to assess where we are, that way I can follow up more one on one with students.”

Mazzarese explained that the guidance department reaches out to offer additional support for specific teachers who may be having a more difficult time processing the death.

“Teachers, like students, all have their own personal history that resurrects in ways that you can’t always anticipate,” Mazzarese said. Many teachers voiced the difficulty they faced when experiencing a death outside of school, personal to their own lives.

“It’s a struggle. You have to be so outgoing and you have to talk to people and basically put on a show everyday,” Bigelow said, remembering her return to school after her mother passed in 2012. “It’s really hard to leave that all behind and come to work and act like nothing happened. That’s the ultimate struggle.”

When dealing with a loss outside of school, it can be difficult to go back into an everyday routine. Health teacher Mr. Kevin Everly said, “I had a good friend who died, and there was something in each class where I would get choked up, so I would go on my iPad and look at an article just to get my emotions away, so that I could be immediate and be able to teach my class.” 

Mazzarese explained the struggle with integrating loss into your own daily life. One must be patient in allowing feelings other than grief to return in the recovery process.

She emphasized the importance of allowing teachers to grieve and take care of themselves. “We don’t expect teachers to be grief counselors. That’s not their job,” she said.

“We try to make [the guidance office] a safe space and a place to go for not only just students, but teachers as well,” Mazzarese said. The guidance department makes sure to give teachers support and reassurance.

“There is what we do right now, today, tomorrow and the next day,” Mazzarese said, “and there’s what we need to be aware of in the weeks and months and years to come.” Losing a student, peer or loved one is a tragedy that is difficult for everyone. In these times of devastation, teachers and guidance counselors alike come together to offer unconditional support and assistance schoolwide.

Resources for dealing with grief

Courtesy of Ms. Susan Kolesar

  • Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss
  • Mental Health First Aid Training, Caring Contact
  • Good-grief.org
  • Griefspeaks.com
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