When Special Education Students Die: How It’s Affected Me and How I’m Coping

Posted
5/2/2018
Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon here in N.E. Arkansas. The weather was beautiful. The sky was a clear blue with those fluffy white clouds which let us know Spring is here and Summer will make its warm presence known very soon. It was a great day to sit outside on the patio and enjoy the sun warmly kiss my pale Northern girl arms, face, and legs.

A text from an unrecognized number popped up on my phone, lying on the bistro table next to me. I read the message. It was too unbelievable, so I read it again. And again. And again. "Stevie Mason passed away Friday. Funeral arrangements have been made at…We are so thankful for what you did for him. He shouted ‘Miss Mary' for months after leaving your class."

What. The. Heck?

Disbelief suspended and forgetting about propriety (because I'm old and sometimes doing my best to be proper as frequently as possible still matters to me, although etiquette typically evades me), I replied and asked, "Who is this? I am so sorry to hear of this news." Stevie's step-mother confirmed her identity. She told me that Stevie had passed away from choking. It was accidental and unrelated to his disabilities. The shock began to set in. I've never had a student die before.

Who Was Stevie?

Stevie arrived in my class in the late Spring of the year. His records indicated he was a student who was non-verbal, was a child with Cerebral Palsy, had a shunt in his head, very low vision, and was on the Autism Spectrum. Our boy was considered non-verbal but did utter refrains in a parrot-like manner. He had come to school the day after change in his living situation occurred. He was now residing with his father and stepmother.

Stevie also had a few issues with behavior…he was defiant, would scream when he didn't get his way. He would bite, and he pulled hair. He pulled hair A LOT. He was also a runner.

Academically, he was low, but that was okay. Stevie could match letter cards to alphabet cards. He could follow simple directions. He could walk in a line when he felt like it, and Stevie was very loving and his feisty antics were always done with a cat-who-ate-the-canary grin on his face.

This strawberry-haired lad took quite a shine to our classroom paraprofessional. She would work with him; he would hug her. She would diaper him; he would chatter indistinguishably at her. She would tell him to get beside her and hold his hand to go to lunch, he would run the opposite direction. She would playfully chase him.

The other kids in our class were great with him, demonstrating the kind of patience we Teachers don't always suspect our kids have. But when they showed him lovingkindness on a daily basis, they taught me what compassion looks like.

Stevie and I worked tirelessly together with a singular goal: no pulling hair. "Don't pull my hurr," was his frequently repeated phrase. "You're right! Don't pull my hair!" His goal was to keep his hands to himself. We started small-two seconds at a time. Then we built to five seconds. Then we grew to thirty, then a minute. Eventually, the hair-pulling subsided, but it never ceased completely.

This fellow was complicated to me as his Teacher. To-date, I'd not had a student with such profound disabilities in my classroom. Because I loved him dearly, it was my mission to learn better ways to support his behavioral needs in addition to his physical and academic needs. Not gonna lie: being his Teacher could be exhausting but we managed to communicate and he managed to learn. Me, too.

Processing His Passing

After several days, I realized that I was indeed grieving the loss of my student as one would grieve the loss of anyone close to them. I rotated through the Five Stages of Grief as if I were riding a teacup on the Mad Tea party Ride at Disney World. My head was whirring in wonder, asking myself over and over again if I had done enough to support this child? Had I truly done my best to overcome any personal anxiety I may have had about working with a child with special needs more significant than I'd ever done before? Was I good enough to him? Was I good enough for him?

Denial

No. This wasn't happening. Children don't die first. We aren't supposed to bury our children. It seems so out of the natural order of life. We are especially not supposed to bury our children who are victims of horrible accidents which could have been avoided if the adults around them were paying attention. I'm sure I'll get another message that says this was all a cruel hoax and they will tell me their son is just fine, right as rain…

Depression

Inability to travel the distance to attend the funeral. I can't even mourn his passing and give myself closure. What if it had been one of my grandchildren? Wouldn't I want their teacher to move Heaven and Earth to show her respect and sadness at their tragic and too-soon passing? Why is this all so cruel and wrong? His poor family…I felt a deep, intense sadness thinking about other families who've lost their children all too soon. Has anyone stood beside them from the school?

Anger

Why aren't people acting like I feel? Why didn't certain professionals outwardly act more sad? Why didn't peers seem more sad? Do people just not care anymore? Are we turning into a heartless society? Is it because he was a child with disabilities? Did his life just NOT matter as much to others? No offers of t-shirt sales for fundraisers, no coin canisters on the counters at local gas stations to collect change. His memory will have to live on in the hearts of those who knew him best because it seems like those are the only ones who care. Sure, a local favorite restaurant fails a whole community gets behind the effort to keep it open. A child dies-a child with SPECIAL NEEDS dies-and it doesn't even rate a corner in the newspaper? Nothing to celebrate him? Yeah, there were days when 3:00 couldn't come quickly enough, but our class always wanted to love him, to educate him, to be friends with him, to give him opportunities to have fun, too. Maybe Special Ed. classrooms really ARE silos-lonely places-where we're left alone to ply our trade with "those kids."

Bargaining

If there really is any justice in this world, Stevie would still be around. I mean, there are so many horrible human beings roaming this planet who could have easily taken Stevie's place and allowed him to remain with us. It's not okay! He should still be alive! He is only a child whose only "crime" was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. IT'S JUST NOT FAIR!!!! Trade his life for one of those horrible people who prey on other innocents. PLEASE just bring him back!

Acceptance

Accepting the death of a child is something I'm not sure anyone actually does. Don't tell me he is in a better place. Don't tell me his body is now whole…my faith causes me to already know that. What I am unsure I will ever be able to accept were the circumstances surrounding his death. It was an accident. While accidents do happen, they're not supposed to leave the world with one less child. But no amount of tears flowing, negotiating with God, offers to trade out other more sinister souls for that of one young boy is going to cause him to return to us.

Instead, we do what we can to honor his memory. We will speak well of him; we will develop more fully as professionals because we will choose to learn more about how to work with kids whose disabilities are outside of the usual box within which we typically work. We will remind our professional community that the kids in my care are the kids in the care of ALL of us…they're not just "your" kids or "my" kids. They're OUR kids. They may talk funny or have physical appearance differences, or they may smell because of a physical issue over which they have no control. They may make a lot of noise. They might pull "hurr." Every single one deserves to be loved and mourned when they pass.

Pressing Onward

If we've lived any length of time, we know there is so much in life that is just unfair. My heart will never be the same because of the passing of Stevie. I hope it will be better, bigger, and more able to be more broad in my scope of thinking when it comes to better educating children with special needs.

Thanks, Stevie, for assuming the role of Teacher. I hope I have been a good student. I promise I will make you proud. I will work hard to do so until we meet again…

If you have experienced the loss of a child, here are some resources to assist in the grieving process: Living through grief, sharing the experience, what not to say, a teacher's perspective on the loss of a student. helping students grieve loss.

Mary McLaughlin

Mary McLaughlin

Mary has always loved learning, but was a struggling learner who couldn’t read until one day, the right teacher came along with the right methodology, and everything clicked for Mary. Understanding the struggles of children who just “don’t get it,” Mary has spent her career supporting children with learning difficulties and finding ways to excite them about education. Over her career, Mary has taught Second Grade, Third Grade, and served as a Middle School Administrator in Michigan, most often in the urban setting. In 2015, Mary relocated to Arkansas in search of new opportunities and is excited at all that has been placed before her. She currently teaches Special Education in a self-contained setting for children in grades 2-4.
Mary McLaughlin

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