Supporting Faculty After Traumatic Loss

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A Unique Opportunity

I had the honor of being asked to participate in a Day of Hope and Healing, which was held in Coral Springs ,Florida on May 20,2018. This event was sponsored by the Bobby Resciniti Healing Hearts Foundation and was designed to provide bereavement resources to the Parkland, Florida community, faculty students, first responders, and their family and friends, in the aftermath of the shootings at Stoneman Douglas High school on February 14, 2018.

I was asked to participate in a Town Hall Question and Answer session and to do a presentation to the Parkland community with Kris Munsch titled: Supporting Faculty After Traumatic Loss. In addition to having the opportunity to be a part of a very inspirational day, the chance to present again with Kris was too good to pass up. Kris and I have spoken together at various venues before and it has always been a great, effortless partnership.

Though I am no stranger to public speaking and life altering loss, I had never addressed a group so early in the aftermath of trauma. I also shared with Kris my awareness that we were outsiders in a community and to a tragedy that we could see but not touch; we needed to both honor and acknowledge that fact.

Uncharted Territory

Prior to this event, I briefly googled Supporting Faculty After Traumatic Loss and the references that I discovered seemed to be specific to helping faculty deal with student concerns after a death or deaths in their schools. As someone who has been an adjunct professor of psychology at Utica College since 2003, I understand the need to be available to our students and the many roles that we sometimes play in addition to teaching. Our college was in lockdown for several hours on March 5, 2018 due to a real and credible threat of an active shooter on campus.

Thankfully the threat was simply that….. a threat. No shots were fired and no one was wounded or killed. I was sequestered in a dark classroom with twenty-two of my students and during that time I was their surrogate parent, as well as their professor.

I knew that if there was a shooter and he or she entered our classroom, that I would have saved as many of my students as I could; sacrificing my life in the process.

When I was asked to present to the Parkland community I tried to envision the challenges that I would have experienced, unique to my role as a faculty member, if any of my students or any student at Utica College had died that day. I also relied on my experience as a parent who experienced the death of a child over 15 years ago.

After my daughter Jeannine’s death at the age of eighteen, due to cancer, I had to reevaluate my role in a world that was foreign to me, in an attempt to find renewed meaning and purpose. So, after some reflection and discussion with Kris, here is what we shared:

Supporting Faculty After Traumatic Loss

• Faculty serve many roles when working with students. In addition to being teachers and surrogate parents, we are also confidants, mentors and protectors. Grief can be experienced across all of those roles, which can be overwhelming.

•Fourteen students and three faculty members were killed at Stoneman Douglas High School. Each surviving faculty member is grieving the loss of seventeen lives in their high school community. They may grieve each relationship individually or in connection with any activities that they were part of as a group. This factor can make the process of moving through grief stressful and challenging.

• Be a companion and bear witness to the pain of loss: This involves being present not only for faculty’s accounts of their experience with the trauma itself, but also for their stories of their relationships with their deceased colleagues and students. They may need to tell their stories several times in order to process what has happened and to accept the fact that their lives are forever changed.

• Support needs to be present in the days leading up to significant school events such as proms, graduations and other special school events. The emotional intensity of grief tends to increase significantly during those times.

  • If faculty members seem to be a little more distracted, fatigued, irritable or impatient than usual, understand that those are normal reactions in the early aftermath of a traumatic, life altering event which has called into question their existing values and priorities and created a world that is no longer safe or predictable.
  • Also, a faculty member’s prior history of loss and current challenges with individual loss need to be taken into account as well. History and current challenges can intensify and perhaps complicate grief in the aftermath of multiple loss of life due to a school shooting.

A Message From Grackle

I was standing outside of the hotel on Saturday morning, May 19th, when this bird, pictured below, made herself known to me.

I had never seen this species of bird at any previous time in my life, so I sent it to a friend of mine, who is well versed in the teachings of animals and nature. She informed me that the bird I saw was a grackle. She explained that :

“The grackle’s appearance is perfect. Also, the iridescent feather reminds us to look beyond the darkness and see the lessons.”

Grackle had provided the perfect ending to our presentation.