Grief by Numbers.

Sample Death Notification Statement for Students:

It is with great sadness that I have to tell you that one of our students, ________, has taken [his/her] own life. All of us want you to know that we are here to help you in any way we can.

A suicide death presents us with many questions that we may not be able to answer right away. Rumors may begin to circulate, and we ask that you not spread rumors you may hear. We’ll do our best to give you accurate information as it becomes known to us.

Suicide is a very complicated act. It is usually caused by a mental disorder such as depression, which can prevent a person from thinking clearly about his or her problems and how to solve them. Sometimes these disorders are not identified or noticed; in other cases, a person with a disorder will show obvious symptoms or signs. One thing is certain: there are treatments that can help. Suicide should never, ever be an option.

Each of us will react to ________’s death in our own way, and we need to be respectful of each other. Feeling sad is a normal response to any loss. Some of you may not have known ________ very well and may not be as affected, while others may experience a great deal of sadness. Some of you may find you’re having difficulty concentrating on your schoolwork, and others may find that diving into your work is a good distraction.

We have counselors available to help our school community deal with this sad loss and to enable us to understand more about suicide. If you’d like to talk to a counselor, just let your teachers know.

Please remember that we are all here for you.

(From: AFSP & SPRA: After a Suicide | A Toolkit for Schools 2011)

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Children coping with suicide are like human palimpsest: fragile, impressionable, and rewritten. In the wake of adolescent suicide every peer becomes a potential statistic, and adults scramble to deal with the aftermath while straddling the thin line between respectful condolence and unintentional glorification. In this chaos the victim loses all personhood and becomes one or both of the following: a symbol and a tool.

There are no nationally implemented guidelines for schools dealing with the aftermath of a suicide, a period referred to in the world of suicidology as postvention. Schools often have something called a crisis-response plan-of-action, which supplies at least a framework for the immediate disorder. These plans usually operate on an individual school-by-school level and flex to meet the needs of the community or, more often, the victim’s family. In an effort to help guide schools in crisis and universalize school-based postvention, in 2011 the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) along with the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) collaborated on a user-friendly guideline called: After Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools, which details step-by-step instructions for dealing with post-suicide pandemonium.[1]

After reading through this document I concluded there is no correct, simple, or entirely fail-safe way for schools to deal with a student’s suicide. Trying to prepare for such capricious conditions is like packing a suitcase for intergalactic travel. Under these circumstances the adults are likely as confused as the teenagers; the only difference is that adults are slightly more aware of the immediate and foreseeable impact. Documents like this come from a place of fear; the greatest concern after an adolescent suicide is the very real threat of contagion, which the toolkit defines simply as: the process by which one suicide death may contribute to another. Since teenagers are highly impressionable by nature, the objective of these guidelines is to lasso their collective shock into a place where their every move and emotion can be monitored. Grief by numbers:

One: Number of ways in which schools should approach a student’s death. “It is very important that schools strive to treat all deaths in the same way. Having one approach for memorializing a student who died of cancer or in a car accident and a different approach for a student who died by suicide reinforces stigma and may be deeply and unfairly painful to the student’s family and friends.”

Four: Number of times the above instruction appears in the document.

Zero: Number of assemblies schools should hold to address the matter. “Schools are strongly advised to explain [to parents] that this is not an effective approach to suicide prevention and may in fact even be risky, because students who are suffering from depression or other mental health issues may hear the messaging very differently from the way it is intended, and may even become more likely to act on their suicidal thoughts.”

Between one and five: Percentage of suicide deaths annually attributed to contagion effects.

At least five or six (but no more than fifteen): Number of administrators, counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses, and/or school resource officers chosen to serve on the Crisis Response Team responsible for “effectively managing the situation.”

Three: Number of “Sample Death Notification Statements” to choose from:

Option 1: When the death has been ruled a suicide;

Option 2: When the cause of death is unconfirmed;

Option 3: When the family has requested that the cause of death not be disclosed.

Five: The suggested number of days during which memorialization is acceptable. “Since the emptiness of the deceased student’s chair can be unsettling and evocative, after approximately five days (or after the funeral), seat assignments may be re-arranged to create a new environment. Teachers should explain in advance that the intention is to strike a balance between compassionately honoring the student who has died while at the same time returning the focus back to the classroom curriculum.”

Innumerable: Number of times I felt the toolkit implied directly to me: Life Goes On.

The benefits of having encountered suicide as a thirteen-year-old include the ability to read documents such as the above toolkit with the eyes of both an adult and a child. As an adult, I see the great care and effort exerted in creating these step-by-step instructions whose main goal is to help children deal with the messiness of their grief and prevent them from imitating their peers’ actions. I see an opportunity to educate kids on the realities of mental illness. I see the underlying social responsibility woven through in an attempt to de-stigmatize suicide and lessen its shameful implications.

But as a child I see Brian turning from a human into a lesson plan. I see his desk being filled, his locker being cleaned out, his peers moving on and his memory being completely erased.


[1] Much of this suicide-specific toolkit borrowed from the rather comprehensive parent model, Postvention Standards Manual issued in 2003 by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which illustrates general postvention for all sudden child/adolescent deaths.

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