School counselors reflect on their experience following student deaths

When five school counselors who were part of a counseling team were interviewed to learn how they professionally and personally experienced the deaths of multiple students in one year in their school while attending to the needs of the school community, several themes emerged.

The Journal of Counseling & Development study’s first theme, gravity of the losses, related to the significance of the losses the counseling team and broader school community experienced as each student died.

The second theme, logistics of care, pertained to how the school counselors managed and navigated the student deaths with the rest of the student body, other school personnel, and each other, both in the initial moments after learning about the deaths and later as students and staff were continuing to process what happened.

The third theme of personal versus professional conflicts reflected how the school counselors reported experiencing a conflict between attending to students’ grief as professional counselors and experiencing their own personal grief.

The fourth theme of increased student cohesion represented the school counselors’ description of a deeper sense of community among the student body that resulted from the student deaths.

The final theme of efficacy reflected how the counselors repeatedly questioned themselves about their effectiveness as school counselors in general, even with evidence that their work supported strong graduation and employment rates and a safe school environment.

“The collective narrative of these school counselors has provided us with invaluable lessons and perspective. A community is, oftentimes, connected by its local schools, and school counselors are on the front lines when crises occur,” said lead author Dr. Michael Hannon, of Montclair State University. “The school counselors who contributed to this study offer us insight into how they provided acute and ongoing care for the school community, while simultaneously balancing and trying to meet their own personal and professional needs. My co-authors and I are deeply grateful for their transparency about such a demanding time.”

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