It was a week after graduation. I was celebrating the end of the school year with some colleagues when an assistant principal mentioned the news in passing: A student who had just crossed the stage at graduation had been killed while visiting the college she was due to attend in the fall. She had been driving with a friend’s mom when she was hit by a drunk driver. I was instantly wrenched from end-of-year celebrations to somewhere totally different. I imagined the student brimming with excitement as she dreamed of her new life on campus before it all stopped.
I went home and sat on the couch late that night, pulling up old assignments she had written in my history class, analyzing all of our email interactions still in my inbox, and reading the comments I’d put on her work. I saw a new weighty significance in prior conversations that referenced college, her future, and the life she was looking forward to but would never experience.
This sadness punctuated the first few weeks of my summer. It surprised me how much pain I was in for someone I would probably never see again anyway, except for the occasional Instagram post. Was it just sadness for a life unlived that I had a tiny part in shaping? Perhaps. But there was genuine grief, too.
It wasn’t the deep grief of a parent, a child, a close friend, or a sibling. However, as a parent myself, I also had an intense, uncomfortable empathy for my student’s parents. At the memorial service, I saw my own daughter in every photograph of the student and did not need to try too hard to imagine that pain.
Yet, teacher grief feels different. The writer and therapist Eleanor Haley identifies a number of types of grief we can all experience. Teacher-student relationships are complicated and don’t always fit in our model for where grief is seen as warranted or appropriate. Seeing a student every day, however, and reading their writing, giving them life advice, and coaching them on their journey into adulthood is not insignificant. Grief experts may characterize this as a form of disenfranchised grief, or when “society says the relationship isn’t important, so grief is not acknowledged.”
This would help to explain what I’ve seen happen among school staff when a student dies. Rather than take for granted that a teacher would grieve for a student who died within a week of celebrating her graduation, we feel the need to justify our emotional response. “I taught her for two years,” I would say. “She came to me for advice, and I got to know her so well.” I saw other teachers do the same in what could seem like a grim competition. The pain a teacher feels when their student dies is real and should be acknowledged. For the good of teachers’ mental health and out of respect for the emotional vulnerability required in the teaching profession.
Teaching makes us particularly sensitive to such experiences. The number of students we bond with also makes us particularly susceptible to cumulative grief. In our large public high school, tragedy is sadly always close by. At the end of summer, a week before returning to school, a beloved former student of mine went missing. He’d graduated during COVID, and his entire class was still stuck in my mind. Amid the pandemic, they hadn’t even had an in-person graduation ceremony, and I never felt I’d said goodbye. When the student was found in the mountains a few days later, having died tragically by suicide, I found the news wrenching. I was flooded with memories of a group trip to Washington, D.C., class discussions when he revealed his intelligence and kindness, and the witty remarks that spoke to his remarkable maturity. It was too much and too awful.
Non-teachers told me to stop “dwelling” on these losses, though I’d barely begun to process them. I was still trying to unravel whether I was mostly feeling personal grief or empathy for the parents. (I realized it was both.) But most of all, I questioned whether I needed greater emotional boundaries to continue as a teacher. If tragedies are inevitable throughout my career, could I really continue being so connected to my students? Or would more distance strip away all the joy I felt for this work?
Now it’s fall, and I find myself with classrooms full of new faces. There are new relationships to form. I’m writing recommendation letters for my seniors, emphasizing each of their unique qualities. Losing a student is traumatic. It also happens too frequently. At the start of my 13th year of teaching, I’m only just learning how to cope with this unique sense of loss and its cumulative effects. But I’ve come to realize that refusing to form strong classroom relationships robs students of the connections they need. Distance is not the answer. Teacher-student connections are unique and special. The bonds are real, and when the worst happens, so is the grief.
Matthew Fulford is a social studies teacher in Denver. He has been teaching since 2006.