The trauma of bereavement

2nd March 2007 at 00:00
How does a school cope when a pupil dies? On the evening of Friday, January 26, I heard that two young men had been killed in a car accident just outside Forres. The next day I learned that one of the victims was a former pupil and the other, Danny Duczek, was a current sixth year student.

My last memory of Danny was his characteristically happy bantering in my Higher psychology class. He was a cheerful, enthusiastic and sensitive pupil and, for the six months I had been teaching him, all our exchanges had been positive. While it is a comfort to remember this, I miss him deeply. His absence from the class is very much more than his empty desk can ever symbolise.

His year group was naturally devastated, and the school, which had recently experienced the bereavement of pupils and staff in last September's RAF Nimrod crash, put various measures in place to help them. A room was made available along with support from guidance tutors to nurture grieving pupils. The pupils were asked what would be most helpful, and management implemented requests.

The school flag was flown at half mast, sixth year pupils were supported in their wish to suspend uniform rules temporarily and wear bright colours in memory of their vibrant friends, a minute's silence was held and ideas were encouraged about ways in which the boys might eventually be remembered.

Round a tree beside a seat, where Danny sat with his friends during sunny days, floral tributes were laid.

Close liaison with the bereaved families meant that the school was able to keep pupils and staff informed about the service to celebrate the lives of the boys.

As the days following the accident passed, it became clear that, much as it was desirable to follow some kind of normal routine in school, the usual social conventions of teacher-pupil relationships were suspended. Grief makes a level playing field of us all, rendering traditional roles inappropriate and so it was possible for us to be united in expressing our sorrow. Hugging devastated pupils was often the only empathetic response to this tragedy.

Such intense suffering makes us question the meaning of what we do and achieve in the classroom. Does A Curriculum for Excellence cater for life's most difficult experiences? What do we do for teenagers who feel immortal when they are suddenly confronted with their own mortality? In a world of instant fixes, do we equip youngsters with the inner resources to face whatever life throws at them? Developing the capacity to cope with trauma is surely as important as passing Higher English.

On a beautiful February day, a celebration service was held for both boys in the Universal Hall, Findhorn. This gentle and compassionate community gathered the grieving families, friends, pupils and teachers to its heart, and all were moved by the courage and love of the nearest and dearest of the boys.

The words of Kahlil Gibran regarding children held an intense poignancy:

"You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth." No one could believe that these young arrows had flown so far away.

We emerged from the service to a vividly blue sky and we knew that some sunshine had, for ever, faded from our lives. For the close mourners, we could only imagine their dark horizons and longed for them to be comforted.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy

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