Community struggles with how to grieve 13-year-old girl who killed herself

Posted March 29, 2013, at 7:23 p.m.

THORNDIKE, Maine — A few days after a sixth-grade student took her own life, the students, parents and administrators at Mount View Middle School are wrestling with how to grieve the girl’s loss without glorifying the way that she died.

The girl, who died at home Monday night or Tuesday morning, is not being named by the BDN. Police said earlier this week that they were investigating the circumstances surrounding the suicide, but no new information was available Friday.

Some students have worn buttons, bracelets and T-shirts in memory of the 13-year-old girl and some have written sentiments about her on their arms. In some circumstances, these students were asked to take off the buttons and bracelets, turn the T-shirts inside-out and wash their hands, according to an email sent Thursday afternoon to RSU 3 parents by Superintendent Heather Perry.

“[They] are accidentally memorializing the recent tragedy, which is something our professional consultants are very clear we as a school need to avoid,” she wrote.

Also, a student rock band that wanted to dedicate its set to the girl Wednesday night during a school concert was not allowed to do so, a decision that upset some in the audience.

“Please know that in each circumstance, school staff explained to students why this is necessary and they begin a conversation about the grieving process and make clear to students the supports that currently exist for them to work through their grief in a more appropriate way,” Perry wrote in the email. “This is done gently and with as much care and thoughtfulness as possible.”

She told parents that she wanted to share information from the National Alliance on Mental Illness with them, indicating that suicide prevention guidelines from the group emphasize creating opportunities to support the grieving process without “glorifying, romanticizing or sensationalizing” suicide.

“In addition to shock and sadness, a suicide may cause fear, confusion, guilt and unanswered questions,” according to information from NAMI Maine. “It is essential that the focus during the time immediately following a death be on supporting the school community through its grief, and fostering a culture of support and condolence, and not on instituting prevention programming.”

According to NAMI, the national suicide rate of children under age 15 is almost zero and incidences of suicide among 13-year-olds in Maine are very rare.

Pamela Smith, director of MidCoast Mental Health, an agency that serves Knox and Waldo counties, said that issues surrounding teen suicide are very complicated and that there is a “very high risk” for copycat suicides. She said that her agency has been fielding calls this week from concerned parents and community members.

“It is important to be mindful about finding a balance, and attending to the loss and grief, without romanticizing what suicide is,” she said. “Given every age group, but certainly middle school, it can be helpful to come up with some concrete methods for the grieving process.”

She said that people often look to schools for safety and expertise, and in rural areas schools can be the heart of the community.

“When schools don’t have the absolute right answer — because there isn’t an absolute right answer — it leaves people feeling shakier,” Smith said. “Everybody is just making their best informed guess.”

Perry said Friday that she has tried to make it clear to parents that the school is trying hard to not do anything that would make things harder for other students who are in precarious emotional positions. Though some students did go to school Friday wearing buttons with the girl’s photo on them, she said, the administration chose not to send them home, ban the buttons or institute other disciplinary actions.

“We’re trying to deal with this through counseling and education, which is the mission of our school,” Perry said. “With suicide prevention, you’ve got to walk that fine line. You’ve got to support [students] and teach them how to grieve.”

But middle school parent Linda Pritchard of Waldo said Friday afternoon that she felt the school misstepped when it didn’t allow the band’s dedication to the girl who committed suicide.

“I was so upset. It was a terribly appropriate thing to do,” she said Friday of the attempted dedication. “I fully expected, walking into that concert, that somebody was going to say something. … it just was a totally wrong call. It was more than appropriate for them to dedicate to their classmate.”

Perry said that the decision was made because the pain of the girl’s death was so fresh, and that the administration would have done the same in the case of any student who had died, regardless of how the death occurred. She also said that she understands that the shock and grief of the suicide is very hard for the community.

“It’s very sensitive. There are a lot of parents out there reacting in a very gut and emotional way,” she said. “I understand why people are frantic and traumatized.”

Students are being encouraged to write letters and cards, which a counselor will gather and pass on to the girl’s family. The students also are encouraged to wear T-shirts or bracelets with the message of being kind to others.

Smith said that one of the best ways to protect children is for them to have strong, positive connections with the adults in their lives, and that people are less likely to commit suicide when they are connected with the community.

“I do think everybody is making their best effort about what will prevent another child from choosing this method of their despair,” she said.

For questions or concerns, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112 or chat with a counselor at imalive.org. For information on the National Alliance of Mental Illness, call 800-464-5767 or visit www.namimaine.org.

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