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
In this article, I will focus on one of the three most common postvention issues that I hear about from parents, students, and educators regarding a student who has died by suicide. This one will focus on graduation and how memorials should be handled for students and faculty who have died by suicide as well as those in our school community who have died by other causes.
The three memorial issues that come up are:
- How should memorial recognition be handled at graduation? (this article)
- How should memorials be handled in the yearbook?
- How should we handle impromptu memorials including locker memorials?
How should memorial recognition be handled at graduation?
You may have read guidelines that say you shouldn’t glamourize the suicide or commemorate a student who died by suicide. So let me unpack that one because it does not mean you avoid mentioning a student who has died by suicide at all.
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 and stigma 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 or faculty member who died. It’s not the place for that. However, it is OK to mention a student or member of a school community (e.g. teacher, janitor, librarian) who died no matter the cause of death. By not mentioning that loved one you look as if you are trying to erase their memory out of existence.
The “keep it simple” strategy
This means mentioning them at the end or at the beginning of a graduation ceremony with any other names of students or faculty who died that year. If there are any that year. It’s not necessary to mention how they died. Most obituaries don’t so it’s not necessary here either.
Go with one thoughtful sentence, “We remember students/faculty who died this school year before their time and they will be missed. Their names are: Sally Smith, Freshman; John Jones, PE Teacher….”
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 during their senior year. 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.
In this case, it was a child who died by suicide. However, whatever protocol you use for graduation memorial should also be used for students who have died from other causes.
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. There were heated exchanges on social media due to the delay in response. A policy created prior to the event would have made it far more seamless and less emotional. And if you have a policy you avoid a lot of heated emotional requests by parents who are in deep devastating grief.
What if they want t-shirts
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, have a walk in support of mental health, or have a speaker on substance misuse or coping strategies for grief. The proceeds would then be in that child or faculty member’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.)
T-shirts, benches, trees, and announcements on marquees outside the school are not advised. If a family wears t-shirts with their child’s name to the service, don’t make a big deal about it before or after. Greet them compassionately and thoughtfully and express your grief as a leader or a member of the school community. You don’t have control over everything that happens so focus on what you can control.
The book below, written by myself and Kim O’Brien PhD, covers postvention best practices and offers examples of what to do in difficult situations after a suicide. Anne Moss Rogers also offers PD for suicide prevention and postvention.