Tragedy & Support

Sitting on the couch during spring break, my mind was in no way focused on my home campus, the building I manage, or the students I work with. Yet, my phone rang with my supervisors name on it. My mind races back to work as my gut tells me something is wrong.

Hours later, I am just finishing an email to the RAs I supervise, informing them that a student in our building has passed away. The worst thing imaginable, and one I thought would never happen to me, has occurred while I am away from campus. While I did not know the student, it is still tragic news. Being five hours away from campus, I felt helpless and unable to provide the best work possible to support the family and friends of the student.

Yet, the fact that the incident occurred during spring break meant that few students were aware of the passing. The next day I continued to be on the phone with my supervisors and leaders in our Division, creating an action plan for support when students returned to campus. It felt good to be doing something to help the recovery efforts.

I met with the RAs I supervise when they returned to campus, providing them up-to-date information and processing their emotions. I have written emails to students and staff, updating them on the situation. The hardest email was telling the entire community that a student passed away. Yet, it was helpful to write that email and to share information with students.

Now, as I write this post, I cannot help but begin to think about myself. Days after first learning of the incident, I am now thinking of myself and what I need to do to remain healthy. A student passing is the toughest thing someone can be confronted with in this field, and now in my last semester as a graduate student I am having to confront this.

I am fortunate to work in a field of helpers and have been getting immense support from them. Yet, how do we, as a field, support folks who are confronted with a student death? In particular, does this support look different for a graduate student as opposed to a full time professional?

Supporting folks who are confronted with a student death is in some ways more challenging than supporting students. We are all helpers, and we go into helper mode. Any sign of distress or discomfort may not arise until days (or weeks) later. Thus, we need to be mindful how we structure our support for our staff. It needs to be different than our support for our students, because this incident impacts staff in vastly different ways than what our students experience.

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