Thoughts on How to Respond to Loss in the Classroom

The tragic death of Ethan Roser has left our campus in shock and grief stricken. After hearing the news you likely started thinking about how your students may have been impacted and how you can help. Here are a few recommendations to consider as you prepare for classes this week.

Acknowledge our collective grief

You may be concerned formally acknowledging Ethan’s passing may be disruptive to class or that this may be more likely to compile our students’ grief. However, not acknowledging what has happened will likely only make the “elephant in the room” larger and actually more challenging for our students. Some examples of how you might acknowledge what occurred include giving a brief devotional, prayer, special scripture reading, or moment of silence in class.

Encourage faith

Helping our students hold onto faith will help cultivate peace, meaning, and purpose during this difficult time. Let students know it’s common to struggle with questions of faith during trying times. Remind them God is with us even in times of trouble. Some ways to help them draw upon their faith might include encouraging students to: read scripture, stay involved in church life, discuss spiritual topics with others, and attend campus events. Be sure to also hold up our students in prayer in not just the days but months ahead.

Share resources

The close-knit nature of our campus means the majority of our students will have been impacted either directly or indirectly by our tragic loss. Another way we can help is to remind students that it’s okay to seek help and that there are numerous care resources available on campus (e.g., College Counseling Center, Chaplain’s Office). Taking a few minutes to talk about resources helps reduce the potential stigma some students might feel about needing extra support. Doing this will also help remind our students that they don’t have to go through this tragedy alone and that we care.

Try to do what is normal in this abnormal time

Crises disrupt daily life. Taking small steps to help our students regain some sort of normalcy will help them cope more effectively. This does not mean ignoring what has occurred, but rather trying to maintain some structure in our interactions. Familiar faces, schedules, and places can go a long way in helping our students. There is something soothing and healing in routine.

Consider triggers

Take a closer look at your lesson plans for this week. Do so from the perspective of your students. Consider how the content and subject matter might be understood or might impact them in light of what has happened. This doesn’t mean you need to change what you planned on teaching. However, you might consider if some of what you are teaching could act as a trigger or exacerbate students’ grief. Making some simple adjusts how you present the material can go along way in preventing additional distress.

Increase availability

Offering spiritual social support to our students is one of the best ways we can help. Arriving a few extra minutes to class or hanging around a little more than normal afterwards will create space for student connections. Doing so will create more opportunities for spiritual mentoring and support. You might also consider letting students know that you are available if they'd like to talk after class or at other times. Also be mindful of opportunities for helping as you go about your week on campus. For example, perhaps you notice a student tearing up as you pass them on the walkway. Take a moment to check in with them. And if there’s ever been a good time for having an open door policy, it’s this week. Overall, keep in mind listening will speak more deeply to our students than any words we might say.

Know when to refer

It is important that you recognize when a student may need additional follow-up services from our counseling center. If a student’s symptoms seem really intense, don’t seem to go away with time, start to interfere with everyday life, or appear much later (further removed from the event) than you would expect, a referral to our College Counseling Center might be needed. Also look for signs of serious symptoms like extreme emotional reactions, impulsive or risky behaviors, and self-medicating with substances.

If a student might be contemplating harm to self or someone else then a referral is also needed. If there is the possibility that a student might be an immediate danger to self or others you need to make a referral right away independent of their consent by contacting our College Counseling Center, a licensed mental health professional, proper authorities, or 911.

For more on how to help, especially outside of classes, you might check out these brief articles on basic helping strategies, spiritual care, what not to say, knowing your limits as a helper, and how to refer.