The important point is to treat all deaths the same way. Keep it simple, be consistent, create a policy prior to any deaths, and involve students in the planning.
How schools should commemorate or memorialize a student who died by suicide
The three memorial issues that come up are:
- How should we handle impromptu memorials including locker memorials? (this article)
- How should memorial recognition be handled at graduation?
- How should memorials be handled in the yearbook?
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 without discussion.
Guidelines suggest you talk to students about why these memorials should be up for a limited time. Those reasons are that you want the family to have the items when they are hurting most and that displays are healing but can also be triggering to some students after a while. Explain that the memorial will be up for a week, 5-6 school days, then set a date that the memorial would be taken down and the items shared with the parents of the student or loved ones of a faculty member who died.
Students in Massachusetts asked that anyone who wanted to tell a story about a student who died, drop an index card into a bowl about that person which was shared with the parents after the administration reviewed 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.
And the locker memorials? They can be disturbing to kids in the surrounding area but again, it’s an expression of their grief. And we want to allow healthy grieving and not be so anxious to glaze over a tragedy.
Again, try to meet with the student or students who erected it. Set a time for it to come down. And above all, be empathetic and thoughtful. This particular subject can erupt into a difficult situation so get ahead of it and allow students to feel heard and offer other ways your policy offers to commemorate the deceased such as community service projects. So if someone died by suicide perhaps a walk sponsored by the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. If it’s an accident, you might do a campaign on driver safety.
Please do not have staff go and take down impromptu memorials
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 book below, authored by myself and Kim O’Brien PhD, LICSW, covers postvention best practices. It offers many examples of how to handle situations that are complicated and difficult after a suicide. Anne Moss Rogers also offers PD for suicide prevention and postvention for educators.