How Do We Handle a Student Death?

Last week, we had a student unexpectedly pass away in a car accident. We found out around midnight on Wednesday via email, and by 8am Thursday, I had 4 emails, 3 missed calls, and 2 voicemails about the incident. I don’t even technically start work until 10, so I knew right away it was going to be a long day, and I immediately went into administrator mode.

Let me back track just a little. My entire life, my grandfather was sick. We were in and out of hospitals visiting him after various surgeries, and my grandmother on the other side spent the last year or so of her life in a nursing home. Where I’m going is that my family never kept illness or death away from us as children and young adults. I won’t ever say that death isn’t sad (ya like that double negative??) because it is, but having seen it from a young age, I think I handle death differently than other people.

Anyway, our student passed away, and I very quickly realized this was going to be different than the previous student deaths I had dealt with. Last year, we had a student get very ill in her room and pass away almost immediately upon arriving at the hospital. We also had a student get hit by a drunk driver and pass away. The first girl was relatively isolated so it created a small group of those directly impacted. The second student was Greek, so Greek Life took on the majority of the planning for vigils and things of that nature. The student from last week was exceptionally involved in our complex and had recently applied to be a student staff member.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m currently working on a team of 5, with 3 of us directly running my complex. Our student was very involved in complex council—attending meetings every week—which left our coworker who has advised complex council all year adversely impacted. My other coworker and I didn’t join this building until this semester, so it was easier for us to separate ourselves and go directly into administrator mode.

But what does administrator mode look like? For me, it meant taking our to-do list of who needed to be contacted, what needed to be planned, and how we were logistically going to do everything and starting at the top. All day, it felt like people were waiting for me to break down and lose it. Call it over-compartmentalizing (I don’t even know if that’s a real thing), but I didn’t feel like I had any license to be as sad as her parents were that day. They were having arguably the worst day of their lives–who was I to cry in their faces when I barely knew their daughter?

I don’t mean for this post to sound heartless. Was it sad? Dear lord, yes. I will never forget this student’s father who appeared to physically be in pain for the whole day. I’ll never forget her sister who could have been her twin. I’ll never forget her mother gushing about how much her daughter enjoyed housing and looked forward to being a CA next year. And did I cry? Yes, by myself in my apartment after the day was done.

It was this that made me think about where we draw the line between being an administrator and being human, and wondering whose job it is to call us on it (or at least step in) if we’re crossing that line. In this case, two of the three of us were not directly in contact with the student, so it was easier to separate ourselves. But what about if it had been a staff member? I like to think I would still be able to serve the family and close friends in an administrative capacity, but what if I couldn’t?

We’re all human, but I guess the point I’m trying to make is that I think we need to be self-aware, especially in these kinds of situations. I knew I needed to take the lead on this particular case because my peer was far more personally invested. All in all, I’ve now had time to reflect and think about times when I might not be able to compartmentalize so well. It’s caused me to think about who I would call, what I would do, and how I could still serve my students if I were more personally impacted.

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3 thoughts on “How Do We Handle a Student Death?

  1. This really resonates with me. I recall the first near death situation I encountered as a live in professional and how it hit me like ton of bricks. My supervisor at the time handled it with such grace and calm that I couldn’t even imagine. Part of that came with having dealt with so many cases over time that he became a little more skilled at the compartmentalization (and I now feel like I have that skill as well). I also handled a student death last year after arriving very recently at the institution – I had no connection to the student whatsoever, so it was relatively easy to step into administrator mode because while I had empathy for the tragedy of the situation, it was much more important for me to let other folks work through those feelings while I handled the “tougher stuff” because I could. I appreciate very much that you ask us to call each other out when needed, but also respect that things like this hit us all a little differently.

    Well written – thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you so much for your feedback! I was worried after I posted that it sounded like word vomit, but there really are 6 degrees of separation when these things happen…until it hits home and that’s not the case. I don’t want to ever invalidate someone’s feelings, but there’s a time and a place for our grief when we’re in positions of power. It’s led to some interesting discussions in the past week, that’s for sure. Again, thanks of the kind feedback 🙂

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