The Sight of An Empty Chair
It’s been almost four years since the news swept across our community that we had lost a senior student as the result of a car crash. Natalie had just graduated high school early and was on her way to classes at our local community college when she was killed in a car accident. This past weekend, a junior student in our school community took his own life for reasons we may never truly know. Sadly, these tragic events are part of what every school community has had to endure at some point in time.
Over the years I have learned that one of the most challenging and heart-wrenching experiences happens when our school communities are faced with the loss of a student. That feeling of sorrow and helplessness never goes away. In fact, each time a life is taken from a school community it can resurrect feelings that have been harbored away since the last time such an experience occurred.
As teachers and school leaders, sometimes the pain and feelings of guilt consume us because we begin to question what or anything we could have said or done differently to prevent such a tragic loss from occurring. Moreover, these are also critical moments for school leaders, school counselors, and staff who are quickly thrust into the difficult situation of trying to navigate a very delicate and emotional time for not only the family who is suffering from the loss of a child or loved one, but also for various members of the school community who are experiencing their own grief. School leaders must not only be prepared to give an immediate appropriate response, but they are expected to respond in a caring, compassionate and respectful way all while trying to address the emotional needs of a student body and staff who are all affected in different ways. It is in these moments when they may not know exactly what to do or have the right words to say that they are the most vulnerable to outside criticism. What a challenging position for any leader or staff member to have to step into.
When I became aware this weekend that one of my former students had taken his own life, I felt the same sense of loss I felt when I was principal; a personal sadness, a feeling of deep sorrow for the family, and a sense of empathy for my colleagues who I knew would be confronted with some very challenging and difficult times in the days, weeks, and months ahead. I sent a text message to my former colleague and current principal Joy Kelly (@joykelly05), and simply said I was sorry and that she was in my prayers. The next night, I attended my daughter’s winter chorus concert. At 7 p.m. sharp, Joy walked out on center stage and addressed the audience. She shared how this had been a difficult day for everyone at school that day. She stated that she had spoken to the student’s parents and that they had given her permission to share with others that Brian had taken his own life. She described how proud she was of the heartfelt responses from the student body and staff. She talked about how students and staff had gathered on Sunday at the school to share memories of Brian. She described how the students had created a memory board to share stories of Brian and what he meant to them. She mentioned that she had just spoken to the students in the different choirs backstage and reminded them not to feel sadness, but to honor Brian and celebrate his life by coming out and performing as a way to bring joy to those in attendance. She talked about how sometimes we as adults can sometimes get down on our kids and allow negative thoughts and feelings to cloud our judgement about our students. She reminded us that our kids are kind, caring and compassionate. She described how the students were “locked in” earlier in the day, looking out for one another. And finally, she shared how proud she was of how the students came together to remind us all again, that in the end, it is the love we share for one another, student to student, adult to student, and colleague to colleague, that will allow us to get through our darkest moments in times of tragedy.
The life of an educator comes with a plethora of challenges. Unfortunately, most of what we deal with was never taught to us in our teacher or leadership programs. No amount of schooling or advanced degrees can ever prepare you to deal with the sight of an empty chair at graduation. But we move forward together, doing the best we know how, and believing that what we do matters, just like it mattered to the families and friends of Natalie and Brian.
May your hearts be filled with love, joy and kindness in the days, weeks and months ahead.
Link to Letter to BHS students: http://tinyurl.com/BHSLetter