Chris died in an accident after school on Friday. By Saturday morning most of the senior students at St Peter’s College, Palmerston North, knew about it by text message and through gatherings with friends.
We prepared for a big week at school. Senior management and staff planned to manage the information, support the grieving, and keep all the students safe.
The school chapel became a focus of support. By 8am on Monday the first students arrived. They came in large numbers for most of the first day. School counsellors, extra staff and some parents were present to help.
Grief is very intense for young adults. Chris’s friends were shocked, disbelieving, angry, and questioning. ‘Where is Chris now?’ ‘Why do people die?’ ‘If God is a loving God and all powerful, why did he let Chris die?’ ‘Could I die soon, too?’ ‘He was my mate, and he is dead. What do I do now?’
We had no answers to the mystery of death and pain. We could only sit with them and listen. The students wept openly, girls more easily than boys. They comforted each other. Sometimes we were allowed to help. A few wanted to talk.
Some practical and faith things we offered the students helped a little. We placed the Paschal Candle in the centre of the sanctuary space. We lit the candle to remind them of our recent celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and the fact that we and Chris share in that resurrection, too. We put out a big prayer box, coloured paper and pens so that students could write their own prayer for Chris. Some wrote him a message instead. We had sand in flat trays for candles of remembrance. At one end of the chapel people could write messages for Chris’ family in two memorial books. At the other end was a big card from the school.
We put out many boxes of tissues and spread rubbish bins around the chapel. We passed around boiled lollies and two information sheets for young people, When a Friend Dies and How Can we Help Ourselves in Times of Grief? These were good resources to help normalise the emotional turmoil students were experiencing.
One of the staff led prayer from time to time. Most of the students were not familiar with the Rosary but they were comforted by just sitting in the prayer. The Māori classes came as a whanau group and sang and shared a hongi with all those in the chapel. Their visit was a powerful sign of love and support.
In the chapel foyer staff set up an urn of boiling water and brought Milo, milk, sugar and biscuits to physically support the students in their grief. The foyer became an important place where students could relax more and talk with one another and with us. There was even some laughter.
At lunch time and interval we encouraged students to go outside for a break and to go back to classes if they could. A number of students tried but returned to the chapel, unable to concentrate. A senior student kept a record for the school of all those in the chapel each period.
The chapel continued as a focus for the week. Gradually the students came less. We had prayers at interval and lunchtime. Flowers and soft toys arrived. One lunchtime Chris’s friends organised a ‘big feed’ in Chris’s memory in the chapel office. They laughed together as if at a good old Irish wake. On Thursday many students went to the funeral with parents or parents of friends.
The rest of the school held a prayer service at assembly. The lunchtime Mass on Friday was unusually full. We said we would pray for Chris. The students prepared a dance for the gospel of the day: ‘There are many rooms in my Father’s house’. Chris’s family came to share the Mass with us. The students hugged them and loved them. The pacific community in the school presented a Tapa cloth to the family.
At the end of the week we were emotionally and physically exhausted. It felt as if we had ridden on a giant wave with the students for the week. But we knew that we and the other staff had helped the students through some of their grief. They had moved on a little. They could manage the next steps on their own.
Mary Bennett and Mary-Grace Williams are counsellors with Campus Ministry, St Peter’s College, Palmerston North.