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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Classroom Discussion after Tragedy

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Take time to talk as a group or class.

You may want to consider providing an opportunity at the beginning of a class or group meeting. Often, a short time period is more effective than a whole class period. Introduce the opportunity by briefly acknowledging the tragic event and suggesting that it might be helpful to share personal reactions students may have without forcing students to participate. 


Have students discuss “facts” first, then shift to emotions.

Often the discussion starts with students asking questions about what actually happened and “debating” some details. People are more comfortable discussing “facts” than feelings, so it’s best to allow this exchange for a brief period of time. After facts have been exchanged, you can try to shift the discussion toward sharing personal and emotional reactions.


Invite students to share emotional, personal responses.

You might lead off by saying something like: “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. I would be grateful for whatever you are willing to share.”


Respect each person’s dealing with the loss.

Some students will be more vocal or expressive than others with their feelings and thoughts. Everyone is affected differently and reacts differently, just as everyone processes grief differently. 


Be prepared for blaming.

After a tragedy, people often look for someone to blame; it is a way of coping. The idea is that if someone did something wrong, 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 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. It is better to avoid trying to make meaning of the event.  


Make contact with those students who appear to be reacting in unhealthy way

Some examples include dramatic personality changes, significant changes in academic functioning, isolation, using alcohol excessively, etc. Feel free to approach a student you are concerned about individually, and express your concerns based on the behaviors you have observed.


Find ways of memorializing the loss, if appropriate.

After the initial shock has worn off, it may be helpful to find a way of honoring and remembering the person in a way that is tangible and meaningful to the group.


Make accommodations as needed, for you and for the students.

Many who are directly affected by the tragedy may need temporary accommodations in their workload, in their living arrangements, in their own self-expectations. It is normal for people not to be able to function at their full capacity when trying to deal with an emotional situation. This is the time to be flexible.


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 and community resources. Common referral resources include the Counseling Center (389-1455), Student Health Services (389-6276), and Campus Ministry (625-6779) or other religious/spiritual resources.  Students may also wish to seek support from communities they are involved in, such as Residential Life, the Veterans’s Center, LGBT Center, or athletic coaches.


Give yourself time to reflect.

You may find that you have your own reactions to a student death. Some find it helpful to write down or talk out their feelings and thoughts. If you would like to speak with a mental health provider with the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), regarding your please call 1-800-657-3719. 


Come back to the feelings as a group at a later time.

After a while, everything will seem to be back to normal; however, this does not mean that everyone has finished having feelings about the loss.  You may want to consider checking in with your class or group after a few weeks by having a brief check-in.   



Adapted from "Dealing with the Aftermath of Tragedy in the Classroom"

Joan Whitney, Ph.D., Executive Director, University Counseling Center, Villanova University