[TW: discussion of suicide]
Last week, the day before the inauguration, I was sitting in a meeting with one of my grade level teams when I got a text from a friend about one of our former students who had recently died.
Longtime readers and folks who know me in person are aware that this isn’t the first time I’ve had this experience; two years in a row at my old job I heard about students and former students who had died suddenly. Both times were difficult, especially because they were kids that were known by the other students; it’s hard to describe the stress that comes from trying to manage your emotions while your helping a group of kids who already have difficulty managing their own emotions work through this kind of bad news. For months afterward, those students’ deaths hit me in weird ways.
This time I felt vaguely sad, but it was a pretty detached feeling. I was texting with my friend about this while my coworkers went on talking about how we were going to proceed with teaching Othello this week; I didn’t bother to tell them anything had happened. This wasn’t a kid that they’d ever met, so the only reaction I felt like they’d be able to offer was the same sort of abstract sympathy that you reflexively present whenever you find out someone’s received some really bad news that doesn’t impact you. Even as I’m writing this, I’m still trying to figure out my own emotions and whether I’m feeling personally impacted; it’s hard to judge, especially since I’m beginning to understand that my process for working through grief isn’t really an overt thing. I’m five years removed from my last interaction with this student, and I honestly don’t know how this news is going to shape my emotions over the next few months.
There is one thing that I know I’m feeling more sensitive about after this latest loss; this student committed suicide. I don’t have any details, so I don’t know the circumstances surrounding their decision to end their life, but given what I remember about the student, it’s likely an expression of their mental illness. In light of that, I’ve felt much more acutely aware of all the immature jokes that some of my students make about killing themselves over minor inconveniences, and I’m feeling less inclined to chide their jokes and move on. It’s a pervasive fear among educators that we might miss signals that children are in need of help or fail to act when we do recognize them. Once this year I’ve had to stop class to deliver a serious talk to my students about the importance of not joking about suicidal ideation and also making sure they tell an adult if they are having thoughts along those lines. That was a weird, somewhat uncomfortable shift from the upbeat tone I usually try to take in class, but it felt necessary in that moment.
Now I’m wondering if there will be more of those moments, and if so, do I mention the incident with this student? Personal connections are powerful tools for making lessons stick, but I’m not sure if this is a personal connection. The news is less than a week old as I’m writing this, and I still don’t know how I’m affected. I don’t want to cheapen what happened to my old student by using them like some kind of object lesson. That’s a hard thing to weigh against the importance of teaching children that it’s okay to seek help when they’re having suicidal thoughts and feelings.
Given the nature of this post, it feels like it would be irresponsible not to include links to some resources for anyone coping with suicidal thoughts. If you are experiencing suicidal ideation, please seek help immediately. You are a unique and irreplaceable person, and the world will absolutely be lesser without you.