Thursday, March 19, 2009

when a student dies

Hello, colleagues, this is my first posting, and I'm honored to have been invited to join. I wish that my first subject were less grim, but it's related to John Alexander's post last month about treating students as people, so it seemed appropriate to discuss it here.

Last semester, I taught a small seminar (an upper-level Philosophy course with only seven students). One afternoon somewhat late in the semester, twenty minutes before class, I received a quasi-automated email from the campus Registrar’s office, with the Subject line: “[Your Student] has been withdrawn from your course”. I thought back to a frustrating conversation with that student at the end of the previous week’s class, about some persistent problems in his essays that he had not, despite my several entreaties, addressed. I didn’t lose my temper or speak disrespectfully, but I was impatient and annoyed and I let him know that. “Maybe he decided to drop the course”, I thought, wondering whether I had been wrong to express my annoyance and feeling some guilt about that possibility.
Barely a minute later, I got another email from a staff colleague in a different campus office, with the Subject line: “[Your Student] has died”. The body of the email was brief, stating only that the student had died late the previous week – in fact, the day after he and I had last spoken.
Of course, I was stunned. [Without getting into details of this particular student’s death, I can say that it was nonviolent, very sudden, and couldn’t easily have been anticipated.] And in about fifteen minutes, I was going to have to go into the seminar and tell the six other students something that I was still having trouble “processing” myself. In slightly more than ten years of teaching, I had not had a student who was enrolled in one of my courses die during the term, and I was almost as unprepared for that as I could be. I was unprepared to hear the news, and I was certainly unprepared to convey it to the other students in the seminar.
Class that day was quite brief. I conveyed the news – such as I knew it – to the students who were there. One student immediately ran, red-faced, out of the room. We sat silently and disconsolately for a few minutes. I told the students that I was at a loss for what to do. I reminded them that we have an excellent counseling center (we do) and that they should please, please consider making an appointment to talk to one of the counselors there. I told them that the Philosophy department would hold some sort of memorial gathering and that I would give them the details as soon as I had them. Then we left.
Given the particular circumstances, and that I was operating mostly on whatever instincts were relevant, I think that I responded about as well as I could have done. Since then, of course, I’ve talked with a handful of colleagues (including one of the counselors) about how instructors can help students when one of their classmates dies. But few of them had faced that situation, and so another important question – how to help the instructor – remained largely open. In thinking about that question, I found it invaluable to talk to that student’s other instructors. We were all dealing with his death, and for most of us (and our students) it was a new experience.
I wish that I had acknowledged, much sooner than I ever did, that some of my students might die during the term. While I knew that it was statistically possible that at some point during my teaching career, one of my students would die, I had not really thought about that as anything more than an abstract possibility. (Not that there’s anything wrong with abstract possibilities, of course.)
I wondered a lot about how I could continue to meet my responsibilities to teach and challenge the remaining students in the remaining weeks of the semester, while also behaving decently in memory of the student who had died (i.e., not acting as if nothing had occurred that might have an effect on the mood of the seminar). There was no question in my mind that the class should continue to meet, but how much class time, if any, should I devote to talking about (exchanging stories about, etc.) the student who had died? Should I keep the same reading assignments, the same writing assignments, the same deadlines, the same classroom? Of course, the circumstances of this student’s life, not just those of his death, affect the way I answered some of those questions. This particular student, though respected by his classmates, wasn’t particularly well liked by them. I knew that, and they knew that I knew it, and so I considered it entirely possible that some of them didn’t feel any need to talk to a counselor at all. Yet I also knew that we all react to death in ways that we can’t always (correctly) anticipate. So, I mentioned the counseling center only one or two other times and then stopped. And I announced the department’s memorial gathering and stressed that attending it was completely optional.
While there wasn’t an obvious link between the subject of the seminar and the topic or experience of (facing) death, part of me feels that I may have missed an important chance to talk with the students about death, dying, and meaning. It’s a bit of a cliché to bemoan the airless, sterile environment of the classroom or of academic philosophy, and I don’t want to be clichéd. But I wonder whether I was guilty of contributing to that kind of environment. Confronted with a very sobering and inevitable part of the so-called “real world”, maybe I should have made the time to talk with the students – in class, not just outside of class – about those Big Topics that are, after all, what drew at least some of them to Philosophy in the first place.

I’m curious to know, from other instructors who have had one (or more) of their students die during the middle of a term, what suggestions they’d give to their colleagues about what to do when that happens.


  1. I have three experiences that might help. When I was a sophomore in college the student next to me died in a biking accident. Our French teacher in her late 60s didn't take it very well, and we ended up with a replacement faculty member for the rest of the term. As a young person, I never forgot how troubled the professor was, but our French class went on without the student and the professor. I don't remember if any counseling was offered to us. I know I didn't take it if it was.

    As a graduate student at Florida State teaching my own section of a logic class, I had a student die before the first day of class. His car was sucked into a drainage ditch during a storm very near campus and was killed. Not knowing the student and not having started classes, I didn't change anything, but it made me think back to my undergraduate days and the death of the student in my French class. I also had long talkx with people about the situation even though I didn't know the student that died. But I can tell you that those e-mails are not they way to inform faculty members. I think a call should be in order for this kind of news.

    My first semester (Fall 2005) as a tenure track professor at my current university (Western Illinois), I was teaching Environmental Ethics with about 15 students, and a student with health problems died. His name was Tom. His death was not expected, but it was well understood given his past health problems. Similarly, all the majors knew him and were stunned at his death.

    I, like you, did not hold class that first day, but did allow students that wanted to talk about it then, say what they would like about Tom, life, death, or anything in particular that they wanted to talk about. After that point, I kept the class schedule the same and the reading assignments the same.

    What I did for Tom and his family (and I guess for me too), however, was request from the Provost that we grant to Tom the BA in Philosophy since he was a major and had done lots of work toward the degree. Of course the chair and other members of the department supported the degree request. If your student was close to graduating, this might be an option you suggest to your chair and provost.

    At a small school where you really get to know the few majors, this kind of thing is difficult to process. I don't think there is a perfect way to handle it, and of course the manner of the death might be relevant too. I tried to show compassion for Tom, his family, and my students that remained. But I didn't want the death to consume the class. So, I gently moved the class back onto topic the following class period after letting people that wanted to talk, talk.

    The Provost agreed to award the degree and the department sent flowers and some went to the funeral. We ultimately got a nice note from Tom's family. I think it was the best our department could do under the circumstances.

    I hope this helps a bit. I am sorry for the loss of your student, and hope that you can find a way to honor the life your student had that makes sense to you.

  2. Wow. That's a heavy first post, Vance. I'm sorry to hear about your student. I've never had a student of mine die during the term (or after, as far as I know), and I've never thought about what I would do, either.

    The only relevant experience I've had, I think, was after September 11. I was an undergrad at the time, and the first class I had after 9/11 was a philosophy of science class. Following the dean's suggestion to address the day's events in a discipline-appropriate way, the professor replaced the day's lesson with a lecture on the problem of evil. (I have no idea what, say, the chemistry professors did.) As a student, I thought it was a perfectly appropriate response—probably far more appropriate than going on with the syllabus as if nothing had happened.

    The problem of evil lecture wouldn't have sufficed in your case, of course. Anybody have suggestions for specific topics that might be appropriate for the death of a member of a class?

  3. I'm very sorry to hear about your student. There isn't a lot that someone can say in these circumstances.

    If you haven't already seen it, Geoffrey Scarre's book Death in the Central Problems of Philosophy series by Acumen deals with death as a philosophical topic in a sensitive and interesting way.

    It might provide some ideas on how to deal with situations like the distressing one that you find yourself in.

    I would also feel inclined to raise the matter of how this news was broken to you. A bland impersonal e-mail should not be the way to deliver news like this, especially as the sender was probably completely unaware of how well you knew the student.

  4. While I don't teach at a collegiate level, I feel obliged to comment, as one of my favorite students died today of viral meningitis. Her death was very unexpected, as she had been ill with flu-like symptoms for less than a week, and was only fourteen. Students and teachers alike were stunned to hear of her passing on the intercom system. Needless to say, this spawned alot of tears and public displays of despair.

    It wasn't long before a long line of students formed at my door seeking comfort in some form or fashion. Ironically, I was so caught up in my own grief that I had failed to think of offering any solace. And, although I questioned my ability to help any of the students, it soon became clear that simply acting as a human--rather than a teacher--was all that was needed.

    We hugged, we cried. At one point I offered humourous anecdotes about the young lady, which forced all of us to laugh and remember the joys of her life, if only for a few minutes.

    My point?

    Follow your gut. Think about how you would want to be treated. Think about the demographic composition of your students. Think about how you would want others to address your own death, if and when it should happen.

    There are no textbooks that can accurately detail how we as educators should handle such tragic situations. However, I think that embracing our humanity will not only assist in the grieving process, but offer a plethora of teachable moments, as well.

    No matter what subject, no matter what grade level, how we handle events like these can--and will--reach students in ways we can never fully imagine.


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