“You see it on the news a lot and on social media but when it hits home, with a student you know, it makes it less of a statistic and it makes it very personal, ” described Deidre*, a secondary education teacher in suburban Chicago, referring to losing students to violence.
While ample information is available to instruct teachers and youth workers on steps they can take to curb violence and how they can help support young people who have been affected by violence, little information is found on how to support the adults coping with violence that plagues the communities where they live and work.
The roles of teacher and mentor are rewarding because of the connections that are made with young people. In contrast, these same connections can lead to sorrow when they experience the loss of student or mentee. Often, they are unable to unpack their emotions and thoughts because of the need to address the concerns of children under their care.
Although most schools and organizations offer grief counseling for staff members, they are trained to first address the needs of the children, putting their own process on hold.
“We have to get ourselves ready to face our students and our school community. We have to make sure that we are doing what we are supposed to as adults in front of young people who are also grieving. It almost kind of numbs you because you don’t want to be in front of kids crying,” explained Deidre.
“When there is a young person that you know very well and someone decided that they should no longer be here; just thinking about the impact that they could have made on the world and that they were robbed of that opportunity, it does something to you.”
Haman Cross, youth development coach at UCAN, explained how he felt after two of his mentees were victims of gun violence.
“That was the first time I had experienced some type of trauma by gun violence. I’ve heard of youth who have known of people who were shot or injured but it was always secondhand. For these two incidents, I had direct relationships, engagements (with the youth), it was really difficult.”
He stated, “Everyone at UCAN was very supportive, especially the violence prevention team.” He also noted that he received counseling to help cope with the loss.
How has the loss of a mentee to gun violence impacted his work? “I probably spend too much time with them. I over compensate. I want to hear from them every day. I want to know where they are every day. That is not healthy either but that is kind of what has developed because of the violence that some of my youth have experienced,” stated Haman.
Loss does not always equate to death but it can also be experienced when a young person who an adult has formed a bond with is incarcerated for a long period of time.
Deidre explained, “I’ve had a few students who have been victims of gun violence where unfortunately the result has ended in death. Then I’ve had students who have put themselves in positions where they have used firearms to take someone’s life or put the people in their immediate area in harm’s way.”
Has she ever been fearful after knowing a student had been arrested on a weapons charge? Deidre explained, “With a couple of the students it did not make me feel unsafe because I had a relationship with those students.
“I think the question also comes up of what could we have done so that this young person did not feel like they needed this. It is two-fold. In one sense, you wonder, ‘Were they always carrying this? Could they have used the weapon in class?’ The other side is you know the individual and how they are. So you wonder what was going on for them to feel like they needed to result to this.”
What can be done to support staff that have been impacted by youth violence? Deidre recommended, “I think just understanding. This is not the norm that you are going to work with kids and that you would have to go to funerals for any of the kids you’ve worked with. It should not happen. I think with understanding there is a little more empathy.”
Haman suggested, “The language that you use about youth also impacts the people what who work with youth. Because of our relationship with them, we see them in ways that maybe the average person does not see them. Be careful about what you say because we care and we are impacted by what is said and how youth are treated.”
*Name has been changed