Supporting the Grieving Student

Thomas Ulmet is Midwest Regional Chapter Coordinator at Kappa Delta Pi.

It was probably the best week of my short life at 15. It was my first band trip, first visit to Florida, first time to Disney World, first time on a real ocean beach. It was basically the best week ever. Until I got home. As the bus pulled around the circle I noticed my mother and some friends from my youth group at church were waiting near the entrance to the school. I thought it was odd, but also considered that it was a Sunday, and perhaps they had all come over to see me as I was just getting back from this huge cross-country trip.

As I unloaded my trombone and started walking to the small cluster that was obviously waiting for me, I don’t think I even noticed that Chad wasn’t among them. Of course he was a busy teenager too, popular at his school and on the JV basketball team. We would talk about how he planned to transfer to my high school, which had a better basketball program, when he finally got his license. He was taking driver’s ed and I later found out, had just gotten his permit that week. We would often hang out on Sunday afternoons—he had a pool and a Nintendo so going to his house was a good time—so maybe I should have noticed he wasn’t with the group that sunny afternoon.

I don’t remember who said what, how the message was delivered. While I was having an amazing time in Florida, Chad had told his parents he was going to walk to a nearby cousin’s house, but he never made it. I don’t recall how they found him and his rifle in the shallow wooded area between the homes. I do know the friends who had gathered around explained that they had already taken him off life support, and he had passed away before I got back to Indiana. I do remember how instantly my emotions plummeted from a tired euphoria to total numbness. I can still remember feeling the weight, a heaviness that can’t possibly be real but somehow oozes down the shoulder to the tips of the fingers and just pulls you down to the ground stronger than gravity.

I can only remember one teacher, Mrs. Mahan, who realized that I was grieving. I remember being in her class, and after not finishing a test, she pulled me aside after the bell. I think she started to lecture me, maybe it was to warn me of my impending poor grades or that I needed to buckle down and work harder. I do remember I wasn’t trying to make excuses but I did let it slip that attending the funeral that week seemed to throw off my week. I think at that point she realized that she was dealing with a grieving student. Again I can’t remember what changed, I do know she showed me tenderness, and the rest of the semester she was supportive of me. My grades probably didn’t improve much, but she became one of my favorite teachers. She sewed a button back on my shirt that had come off and advised me to always carry an emergency sewing kit. Sewing kits are still special to me.

A couple of years later I remember our marching band director was going around recognizing all the seniors. The band director talked about how I really came out of my shell as a senior and what a transformation she had seen since I was a freshman. She also mentioned her memory of that day after the band trip, how she wondered at the time if this shy, introverted guy “would go nuts” but instead she was relieved to see how I broke out of my shell and became an outgoing section leader. I had no idea she was aware of the news I received that day, how it affected me. I truly doubted any other educator or counselor at the school was aware of my loss, and certainly nobody but Mrs. Mahan talked to me about it. It shocked and confused me that almost 2 years later I learned that others knew, and they stood back and watched.

Maybe this was the 1990s, and today schools are more proactive about dealing with student grief. After a tragedy we are now assured that counselors are available for students and families. I believe that is important. I also believe there is more educators can do when they know students are dealing with grief.

That is why I am so excited to hear Dr. David Schonfeld and a number of partner organizations have launched a new site, www.grievingstudents.org. The site hopes to provide educators with information and advice to better understand and meet the needs of grieving students. I encourage you to check out the site, but also to access Dr. David Schonfeld’s KDP Webinar, “Supporting the Grieving Student” available in the KDP Resources Catalog. This is one of my favorite webinars and I often refer to it as a unique resource available to members from KDP. It is wonderful to note that there are now more free resources available to help educators support grieving students, and I am grateful for the work of Dr. Schonfeld and the many partners who make these resources available.

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