The purpose of a memorial is to commemorate in personal and meaningful ways the lives, not the deaths, of those who are deceased. Recognizing the need for students, staff, family members and the community to express their grief and let others know the value of the deceased is very important. The challenge for schools is to strike a balance between compassionately meeting the needs of grieving students and appropriately memorializing the student who died without triggering other students who may be at risk. Research indicates that the risk of suicide increases whenever there is a death, regardless of the manner of that death. This is why it is essential that our response to loss, and to the request for memorials, be handled in thoughtful ways that consider the potential impact to at-risk students. Being prepared with consistent protocol helps the community focus on the life of a student rather than dwell on the circumstances of the death.
A “memorial committee” is in place to screen memorial requests. Their task is to help guide appropriate decisions regarding memorialization and to minimize contagion and destructive focus of community energy that can happen when deaths are treated differently. The committee’s interest will be to identify a meaningful, safe approach to acknowledge the loss, making sure the school is sensitive to the needs of the students, family, and community. This will support the process of grieving and provide a uniform response to all deaths. No one who requests a memorial activity has any intention of creating a situation that puts another person at risk, so a simple explanation of the contagion concept may help positively alter the direction of memorial requests. Protecting vulnerable students is of the utmost importance.
Things to keep in mind when making memorial decisions:
Wherever possible, encourage life-affirming ways to memorialize a student.
- Temporary memorials such as decorating a locker or making a journal. These items should be time-limited, generally until the time of the funeral when items can then be shared with the family.
- Moments of reflection.
- Temporary sticker or band on uniform if a student played a sport (not an image of the deceased).
- Making a donation to a local crisis center or organization.
- Participating in an event that raises awareness about suicide prevention.
- Buying books for the library.
- Hosting a program that stresses resilience and protective factors.
- Service projects that focus on helping each other.
- Have a community service day in honor of that person.
- Team participation in an awareness program (Out of the Darkness Walk).
- Volunteer at a local Crisis hotline.
- Make a book where people can write notes to the family and then present it to them.
- Collaborating with a local community service agency that promotes good mental health.
Things to avoid:
- Permanent memorials can serve as constant reminders of loss and grief and should be avoided (tree planting, plaques).
- Clothing or items with the deceased name or picture.
- Flying the flag at half-staff. There are state regulations on flag flying that are not in the jurisdiction of a school district.
- Putting memorials on District websites.
- Dedicating yearbooks.
- Fundraising for a memorial.
- Making special acknowledgement at graduation or awards assemblies.
- Dismissing school for funeral arrangements.
- Having a school assembly or a large public service.
School memorials should take into account the need for the school “family” to grieve, yet be vigilant to the triggering and traumatizing effect that memorials can have. Above all, school memorials must be consistent and equitable for all students and all manners of death.
After a Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools (pgs. 27-32)
Lifelines Intervention Manual (Chapter 8, pgs. 157-160)