How schools should commemorate or memorialize a student who died by suicide

In this article, I will focus on the three most common postvention issues that I hear about from parents, students, and educators regarding a student who has died by suicide.

Those three are:

I also cover:

How should memorial recognition be handled at graduation?

You may have read guidelines that you don’t want to glamourize the suicide or commemorate a student who died by suicide in a yearbook or at a graduation ceremony. So let me unpack that one because it does not mean you avoid mentioning a student who has died by suicide at all in either situation. The important point is always to treat all deaths the same way, keep it simple, be consistent, and involve students in the planning.  

Not mentioning the name of a student who died by suicide won’t help you avoid contagion

However, you will likely heat up emotions and rarely in a good way. Having one protocol for memorializing a student who died in a car accident and a different one for a student who died by suicide even if those events are years apart reinforces prejudice associated with suicide and may be deeply painful to the student’s family, and students while causing a lot of outrage and potentially triggering negative media coverage.

I am not advocating a memorial presentation or speech at graduation about a student who died. It’s not the place for that. However, it is OK to mention a student or teacher who died no matter what the cause of death. By not mentioning that loved one you look as if you are trying to erase their memory out of existence.

So the “keep it simple” strategy is to mention them at the end or at the beginning with any other names of students or faculty who died that year. If there are any that year.

Go with one thoughtful sentence, “We remember students/faculty who died this year before their time and they will be missed. Their names are: Sally Smith, Freshman; John Jones, PE Teacher….” You can tell parents that there are opportunities to have memorial projects but your policy, which was created in part by parents* and students, states that all deaths are treated equally and it’s important for the safety of a vulnerable population to keep it simple and consistent. Then suggest the various service projects or nonprofit donations that will be in memory of that child. For example, you might raise money for the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention and donate in that child’s name. (*If you engage a bereaved parent as part of your committee, you want to ask parents who are at least 2 years after their loss.)

Example of a graduation memorial recognition at a high school for a child who died by suicide

One school asked the parents for a representative to receive the diploma for a child who died after graduation and before the ceremony. At the place where he would have sat for his class, they placed his cap and gown and a picture in that seat. They talked to the students who would be sitting on either side to make sure they wouldn’t be surprised and gave them the option to switch seats if they found it too uncomfortable.

This school kept it simple and when the student’s name was called, the representative received the diploma on behalf of the deceased student and went through the same motions as other students that day. It was not sensationalized, but a thoughtful memorial mention and worked with the flow of the event. They had to hammer out this policy days before the ceremony and administrators didn’t agree at first which was very upsetting to the family. A policy created prior to the event would have made it far more seamless and less emotional.

Example of an honorary diploma from a parent who had to fight to get her child mentioned at graduation

How should memorials be handled in the yearbook?

You don’t want to get competitive about commemoration, so make a policy that you will have an “in memory of” section of the yearbook should you need it that simply lists the names of any students or faculty who have died with a picture that is consistent with the student photos in the class section with a born and died date. If it’s a late addition, you can simply list printed names. I disagree with anything that states names of students who died by suicide are not included in the yearbook especially if other students who died are included. Yearbook companies will sometimes push back but they are hardly suicide prevention experts. Again, you will only anger students and family and it will do nothing to avoid contagion. You can reserve a quarter page or the bottom 1/4-1/8 of the page if you have any at all.   

It’s inappropriate to dedicate a whole page or pages of memorial pictures of any student or teacher who has died that year no matter what the cause. Because then you set a precedent going forward that might be hard to keep. Creating this policy upfront and making it very clear and simple is important. That’s not to say that you will not commemorate students or faculty who died to facilitate healthy grieving. It simply means for the graduation ceremony and the yearbook, you just keep it simple and consistent.

Parents and students may want more, but that’s where you state that the policy was created by staff and students and discuss with them the ways they can commemorate the death. Which of the ideas listed in the policy would they be most interested in? And these need to be focused on helping other students manage and understand their grief as well as projects that inspire post-traumatic growth instead of post-traumatic stress.

Suggestions range from nonprofit projects that promote mental health, walks or other service projects that allow students to work together. If you accumulate some ideas and convene a group that includes some students, administration, and faculty, you could end up with some inspiring ideas.

For all deaths, it’s simply not appropriate to erect memorials or plant trees because it’s a school and not a church or graveyard. Trees and gardens can end up looking unkempt and rangy, erected memorials can often start to look like a cemetery.

Example of a memorial project at a high school for several deaths including a child who died by suicide

Here’s where you don’t take the guidelines too literally. A high school in the northeast experienced the death of a teen who died by suicide and this was the third death the school had experienced that year. One player had died from a heat stroke on the athletic field and a faculty member had died in a car accident. That’s when they realized they had no policy. After the teen died by suicide, the students suggested sprucing up an already existing outdoor space that had become a bit unkempt. They did replace the worn-out bench but didn’t engrave it with anyone’s name and the goal was to recreate the space for reflection and meditation.

If you were taking the “no physical memorials” guidelines literally you might nix this project for fear that it would sensationalize the suicide death. But it was in response to three deaths and a place the kids wanted to invest their efforts because the area had fallen in disrepair and they thought of a new way to use it for the health and well-being of faculty and students.

What I’m saying is not to be too strict on policy and allow for the kids to have some say-so particularly if they say it benefits health and well-being.

What about impromptu or locker memorials?

In their grief, students will often express it in ways you feel are inappropriate or might even frighten you. But it’s important you have a discussion with the students who erected it and not to dismantle it. Guidelines suggest you talk to students about why these memorials should be up for a limited time and set a date, 5-6 days, that the memorial would be taken down and the items shared with the parents of the student who died. The students might have the idea that anyone who wanted to tell a story about that student, drop an index card into a bowl which you’d share with the parents after reviewing them. If the display blocks an exit, explain that to the students and allow them to relocate it, and then share with them the 5-6-day rule of giving the parents the items in their child’s memory.

Please do not have staff go and take it down. After a student at my son’s school died by suicide two years prior to Charles’s death by the same cause, students painted graffiti on a bridge in a park in their neighborhood. It was a place where the child had died. The kids owned up to it and were not trying to deface property but in their anguish felt they were honoring the memory of their friend. These kids were merely expressing their pain.

The neighborhood board was outraged and the students had to come before the board and discuss the graffiti. The students proposed and the board agreed on a date when they’d clean it up which was a ritual of grief and connection. Unfortunately, two of the board members decided to hire a contractor to come to clean it up ahead of that date. The school then charged all three grieving students with felonies and they were ordered to never to step foot on school property ever again. Having met two of those kids, I know these actions put them at risk of taking their lives. Media coverage was brutal and not in the school’s favor. Overall this was handled poorly.

Adults were anxious to “erase” the memory while these kids were struggling with the loss. So do remember that grieving people need more care, deserve to be heard, and often act in ways that are unexpected but not meant to harm.

The time to develop a policy on memorialization is before a student or faculty death occurs

Having a policy helps administrators avoid potentially unsafe and sensitive situations by allowing the school to rely on what has been laid out. This kind of policy needs to ensure that everyone feels they can be part of it and that no one ever feels one life is worth more or less than another. Otherwise, it can also become very competitive, with students and parents trying to outdo one another. What’s more, it can help you avoid outlandish requests made by grieving parents who desperately don’t want their child to be erased or forgotten.

Ask your committee: Does this sensationalize or glamourize suicide as a solution? There are lots of ins and outs but this is the basic information.

Commemoration shouldn’t become a popularity contest, and having a policy helps schools avoid that trap. Having students involved is one way to create a more balanced procedure, one that works for grieving adults and young people.

Here are some points to keep in mind when creating a memorial policy

The overarching themes are:

  • Create a policy now because it’s likely there will be death at your school at some point
  • Be consistent, treat all deaths the same
  • Keep it simple and straightforward but allow for student creativity
  • Don’t make the school a church
  • Involve students in policy-making and commemoration ideas
  • Never yank down impromptu memorials without first meeting with students
  • Run ideas by the family when you are commemorating their loved one
  • No matter the cause of the student or faculty member’s death, instead of physical memorials or t-shirts, look to plan events or service projects that:
    • Celebrate life
    • Offer connection and hope
    • Raise money for nonprofits
    • Support wellness

There is no research that says that memorials cause copycat suicides, but a lot of the guidelines are based on the fact that sensationalizing or grandiose coverage of suicide by media does. So most memorial guidelines are adopted from this research. The next section has a number of resources to help you develop your own policy. Dr. O’Brien and I have a whole section on both creating a commemoration policy and postvention in our book, Emotionally Naked: A Teacher’s Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk.

Flying the flag at half-staff, adding a notice on the school’s outdoor message board is not encouraged. Students sometimes want to do t-shirts and it’s best to use those for an “out of the darkness” walk team in your area instead. The main thing is to include students in all planning so they know why the rules are as they are and work together to develop a plan that works for them, you and your school.

Resources for creating a school policy on memorials and commemoration