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How to Talk About Tragedy

J. D. Muth © 2009--Photo taken March 10, 2009 on Sulphur Mountain, in Upper Ojai.

As faculty, you may be the most constant adult in students’ lives. When tragedy strikes – whether it is a student suicide, alcohol overdose, car accident, fire or earthquake, students will look to you to help them sort out their feelings and thoughts about the situation, the meaning it might have in their lives, and how to deal with the aftermath.

We know from the psychological literature that generally speaking, dealing with a crisis or traumatic event early on is more helpful than waiting days or even weeks or months. It is often very helpful to simply allow some time – perhaps fifteen minutes -- for discussion at the beginning of the class. Students may or may not feel comfortable talking, but you’ve given them a venue to consider how they are feeling and the permission to seek help.

For more information on what happens to people after a disaster or other traumatic event, see: Managing Traumatic Stress: Tips for Recovering From Disasters and Other Traumatic Events 

Tips for Talking With Your Class About Tragedy

  We encourage you to provide time during class to discuss the incident and the students’ reactions to it. Discussion can be brief. Consider providing an opportunity at the beginning of a class period. Often, a short time period is more effective than a whole class period. This serves the purpose of acknowledging that students may be reacting to a recent event, without pressuring students to speak. The students should be encouraged to express feelings in a supportive atmosphere as soon as possible. You might say:

“Often it is helpful to share your own emotional responses, and hear how others are responding. It doesn’t change the reality, but it takes away the sense of loneliness that sometimes accompanies stressful events.”

Give the students 30 seconds to a minute to say something. They may need a little time to get the courage to speak. If students do not speak, you might prompt them with something additional:

“Do you have any reactions?” or “Have you been talking about it among your friends and family?”

Your role as a faculty member is to listen, validate, facilitate. Please don’t feel you need the answers or that you need to solve anything.

If students begin “debating” the “right way” to react to a tragedy, it is useful to comment that each person copes with stress in a unique way, and there is no “right way” to react.

  You may not be the first to know.   In today’s high-tech world, students’ immediate access to information through text, email messages, Facebook, etc. means they may very well know more than you do as a faculty member. The University does not send official notification until accuracy of the information has been verified. This time delay can present a dilemma for faculty. 

Rather than focusing on what is officially known, it might be more helpful to address students’ feelings of distress, to talk with them about the importance of being respectful by discouraging rumors, to offer information about available resources, and to let them know you will share any official information as you receive it.

  It is normal for people to seek an “explanation” of why the tragedy occurred. By understanding, we seek to reassure ourselves that a similar event could be prevented in the future. You might comment that, as intellectual beings we always seek to understand

It is very challenging to understand “unthinkable” events. By their very natures, tragedies are especially difficult to explain. Uncertainty is particularly distressing, but sometimes is inevitable.

  Be prepared for blaming. When people are upset, they often look for someone to blame. It is a way of coping with life’s uncertainties. The idea is that if someone did something wrong, then future tragedies can be avoided by doing things “right.” If the discussion gets “stuck” with blaming, it might be useful to say, “We have been focusing on our sense of anger and blame, and that’s not unusual. It might be useful to talk about our fears.”

It would be appropriate to spend 15 minutes of class time. The loss of instructional time will be well spent if students are distracted and unable to concentrate because of unspoken concerns and fears. After brief discussion, returning to the scheduled lecture or class activity will also be healing.

  Thank students for sharing, and remind them of resources on campus. In ending the discussion, it is useful to comment that people cope in a variety of ways. If a student would benefit from a one-on-one discussion, you can encourage them to make use of campus resources, including Counseling Services, Housing and Residential Life staff, Campus Ministry, the Dean of Students.

Let your students know that when events like this occur, Counseling Services makes special arrangements to provide support to students who are affected by the situation.

If you are concerned about a particular student, please approach him or her privately.

Counseling Services is also available to consult with you regarding any student with whom you might be concerned.

  Resources available on campus:

  • Counseling Services, (805) 756-2511
  • Health Services, (805) 756-1211
  • Dean of Students, (805)756-0327

For information on the impact of traumatic stress, the American Psychological Association provides the online brochure Mind/Body Health: The Effects of Traumatic Stress


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