Grief and loss: Former West High social worker explains how schools adjust to a student death

MADISON, Wis. — Michelle Marking has helped Madison West High School through many crises as a social worker and Crisis Team lead at the school for 16 years.

Marking said the tragic and unexpected deaths of West student Simon Bilessi, and Middleton High School students John Miller and Evan Kratochwill will linger with students and staff for a long time.

While she was on the Crisis Team up until three years ago, Marking said they would give teachers a script to explain to students what happened.  A member of the team would also follow the former student’s schedule to offer support for those who knew the student well. They would do this for teams and clubs the student was involved with.

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“It was really to keep an eye on our students, to make sure they were doing ok, the best they could do. We really worry about the safety of other students during these times. Really the goal was to try and provide that type of environment and space for students to process,” Marking said.

During a traumatic event, school counselors said it’s important for students to resist the temptation to isolate or withdraw.  Instead, they said to lean into your support system. They said don’t neglect yourself.  Selfcare can be very beneficial, including getting enough sleep, eating healthier foods, exercising, meditating, or doing yoga.

“Really think about how you’re processing your grief, how you spend time experiencing and feeling those emotions so you’re not burying them or stifling that emotion,” said Madison College Counselor Gerard Xavier.

Marking and Xavier both stress that people grieve differently.  Above all, they encourage those who are struggling to remember they’re not alone and to reach out to someone they trust.