‘An up and down process’: Teachers grapple to support students through grief


Lucy Rickart-Webb & J Horsley

“We need more long-term mental health support for every student on this campus given what has transpired over the last year,” said Anna Maine, Multilingual Program (MLP) co-lead teacher and English Learners (EL) Coordinator. Maine has been working to support grieving students after the recent tragedies that have shaken the Berkeley High School community.

“Grief is so different for everybody, and that’s the first thing we need to remember,” said Xochitl Dueñas, an English and MLP teacher.

BHS staff, including counselors, teachers, and other adults available on campus, have been involved in the grief support process by reassuring students, as well as remaining aware that grief comes in many forms. 

“Our community was deeply impacted by the most recent tragedy,” Maine said. “Our students often arrive at BHS with a lot of trauma so these kinds of events can trigger things for our students.” 

Support comes with a whole lot of grace, empathy, and understanding, according to Dueñas. She explained that everyone grieves in a different way. That means “giving students, staff, and everyone a space to process, to not jump back into things, as if things are normal,” Dueñas said. It’s important to have conversations about how grief looks in different stages, as well as “just taking it slow, and giving everyone all of the grace, patience, and time that they need to heal,” Dueñas said.

Students aren’t the only community members struggling with grief from the recent tragedy. “It’s been incredibly sobering to see that you can’t have it all together all the time,” Dueñas said. “Sometimes, it’s okay to show your humanity to your students, and that’s a part of it as well.”

Universal Ninth Grade (U9) Hive 3 math teacher Emily Gilden, who taught one of the victims of the most recent shooting reflected on her experience with grief. “Angel was my student; I was quite close to him, so it’s been really hard on me to focus and do anything, thinking about him,” Gilden said.

In reference to supporting her students, Gilden said that “It’s been an up and down process, obviously.” Many of her students were heavily impacted by the tragedy, and she remains involved in supporting their needs and helping them catch up. Additionally, Gilden has been meeting with a group of counselors and teachers to talk through how to best support their students in the grieving process.

She added that she felt shocked  when students closely affected by the tragedies this year and last maintained their school work. “What (they) would need – or what I would need in that situation – is not to feel stressed about keeping up with my classes,” Gilden said. 

Maine echoed this sentiment, “We’re trying to get back to normal, because that’s what a lot of students seem to want, but it feels very abrupt.”

Following community tragedies, Maine  refers her students to support available on campus. She also creates a safe space in her classroom by providing opportunities like an optional community circle or activities that break out of the normal school schedule, such as watching a movie. Since Maine teaches in the MLP, she also reviewed emotional vocabulary for her English learners so they could express how they feel. 

“A lot of the time, in various situations, teachers fill in that emotional support role, of course for tragedies, but (also on) an every day or weekly basis.” Dueñas said. The reality is that many teachers regularly provide support for their students, even outside of the extra emotional support needed during a tragedy.

However, according to Dueñas, “It’s kind of an awkward space to do that at school because (everyone) should feel very safe here, and you have to honor the feelings that are coming up when they come up.” 

This process can be challenging for teachers to implement into their classrooms while also balancing each individual’s needs.

As much as BHS is trying to be there for its students in terms of mental health, the school is not equipped well enough to adequately support each individual that has been affected by these events. “I think the school has a mental health crisis, which isn’t always the most visible” Maine said. “The district should spend a lot more time investigating what our students are going through.”

BHS is one of many high schools struggling with mental health crises resulting from recent worldwide, nationwide, and local events. “I would love to just see more personnel available for any student who is struggling to access it, because of the pandemic, because of many different events last year, because of this recent tragedy,” Maine said.  

Gilden said, “There’s definitely not a one perfect solution to these things. But, I think we’re trying our best and there are a lot of support (systems) that maybe a lot of students don’t see.”