Memorials After a Suicide: Guidelines for Schools and Families

When a school community experiences the death of a student, there is often the very human tendency to want to do something in memory of the deceased student. These memorials can range from spontaneous tributes piled at lockers or parking spaces to more permanent, lasting tributes like placing plaques in halls or planting trees or gardens in the student’s name.

There may also be ceremonies or assemblies that bring together members of the school community to share memories and grieve together. The one circumstance that may give schools pause in permitting these types of remembrances is when the death is by suicide.

Currently, there is no specific research that addresses the connection between school-based memorials and copy-cat suicides or contagion. There is research however about media coverage of suicides that found that sensationalized news coverage contributed to copy-cat deaths. Experts in the field of postvention have reported anecdotal evidence to support the common-sense observation that vulnerable students who are at-risk for suicide may be affected by these memorial tributes.

The distorted thinking of someone who is suicidal can be hard for those of us who have never entertained thoughts about suicide to understand. There is an irrational quality in the mental state of someone who is contemplating intentional death that over-rides the intrinsic survival instinct. While the logic of dying by suicide so that the school will put up a plaque or hold an assembly to acknowledge the death is almost impossible for most of us to comprehend, it is the way suicidal students can think. And what is even more complicating, is the fact that suicide contagion or clusters are often instigated by a death that is not a suicide.

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