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Rising from the Ashes: Learning After a Loss

In a deservedly viral TED talk, Nora McInerny explained that people don't "move on" from grief, but rather move forward with it. And, although still a daunting task, there are many books, videos, and counselors out there waiting to shed wisdom on grief and life after a loss. But what about an entire school community? What advice is floating out there for that?

Empathy to Lead the Way

There are countless scenarios that lead to a grieving school community. From school shootings to hurricanes to accidents to heart attacks. And with each unique loss comes a multitude of variations in grief. In my own little sliver of life, our area has had principals pass away unexpectedly, students killed in car accidents, student suicides, and death of students in gang violence. Each of these events caused grief in different ways for different individuals. But so often, giving empathy and space to grieve is part of an important process.

In 2015, I was living in Columbia South Carolina, home of the University of South Carolina (and yes, my beloved alma mater). That year, Columbia suffered an unprecedented flood, brought on by continual weeks of rain, swollen rivers, and dams breaking in series like dominos. Much of the city and surrounding areas flooded severely, while residents also fought water shortages from contamination. Amid all this, in early October, came the Carolina-LSU football game. (And, in case you aren't a football-loving southerner, please understand that this was a very big deal in the community.) In a last-minute decision, the game that was supposed to be played in Carolina was moved to LSU. And with all things considered, only the team and support staff were able to go, leaving behind the ever-present band and most fans. And then, in a motion of true sportsmanship and empathy rarely seen on a football field, the LSU band came out and played South Carolina's fight song and alma mater. Now, some schools might love their alma mater, but at Carolina, we love our alma mater. The band sings the alma mater at the close of each band rehearsal, and, at the end of every home football game, the band, players, and fans play and sing together to close the festivities. In that simple act of playing Carolina's songs, LSU brought profound empathy and a caring hand of outreach to grief-stricken Carolinians who were struggling without water and many without homes.

Although leading schools may have little to do with college football and alma mater's, this story paints some very important lessons for us as we face potential crises in our own schools and communities.

Plan and Plan Again

When the flood hit Columbia, SC, it was unanticipated, but South Carolinian's do have a long history of hurricanes, so, although it looked a bit different, emergency relief was quick to be had. Shelters were established at local schools and churches, emergency supplies were brought in from Atlanta, GA, and everyone who had ever done post-hurricane flooding demo came out in full force to take care of sodden homes and businesses. We may not have liked it, but we knew what to do.

But often for a school leader, your traumatic event or loss may be your first, and you may not have the luxury of seasoned professionals around you. It is important to have basic emergency plans in place, first to deal with the event itself, and then to handle both short and long-term impacts. Do you have an emergency plan in your school? For fire? Tornado? Earthquake? Chemical spill? How many staff know the plans? Where is your off-site rally point? Who knows about it? Having a plan will not make everything into sunshine and rainbows, but it will prevent an already traumatic event from being worse.

Ensure Access to School and Community Professionals

When tragedy strikes a school, students and families will need access to resources. These may be both economic and mental health needs. Again, as part of an emergency plan, it is best to know your resources in advance. In the Kennedy-Paine, Reeves, and Brock article, they highlight the frequent disconnect in services provided to a school after a tragedy. They note that schools often bring in outside counselors who know little to nothing about schools and/or children. They also note that crisis counseling is often temporarily provided, with no connection to ongoing services. Again, these are things that can be planned ahead within a community as part of a comprehensive crisis plan.

Empathy Over Everything

Students and families may grieve indefinitely after a tragedy. I once had the opportunity to be in the audience and listen to Alissa Parker, a mother whose daughter was among the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. Her resilience and faith were unforgettable, but it was also clear that sharing her message was her way of moving forward with her grief. She will always be grief-stricken, but she also found a way to have joy in her life at the same time. But for her, it meant talking about her tragedy to audiences over and over again. For me, that sounds awful, but then I haven't gone through that loss. And so, I am left to empathize, recognizing that each of us must grieve in our own way, and some may never "get over it." And that's okay. Give space, understanding, and resources to each student, teacher, and family in whatever way is best for them.


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