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Strategies for Supporting Students Through Tragedy

The WashU community is mourning the loss of undergraduate student, Orli Sheffey, who died by suicide last Friday. It’s important to acknowledge that many of us and our students may be experiencing grief, fear, anxiety, and a host of other emotions this week, whether we personally knew Orli or not. During times of community tragedy, faculty may wish to provide extra support to their students but may be unsure of where to begin. Below you’ll find several strategies and suggestions for supporting your students during this difficult time.

Acknowledge the Situation and Check in with Students

In times of tragedy and trouble, it is critical to name the elephant in the room. Take a minute at the beginning of class to acknowledge what happened. Say the student’s name when talking about them. Note that many students may be having a difficult week. Ask them how they are doing. If you are experiencing grief and you are comfortable doing so, you can also let students know that you are having a tough week. Do your best to be present and authentic. Avoid telling students how they should feel or what they should do. It’s also important to avoid suggesting that you know how they feel, as everyone experiences grief differently.

You Don’t Need All Answers or to Be a Counselor to Help

You don’t have to fix anything for your students and you don’t need all of the answers to help. Instead, remind them of the professional supports available to them at WashU. Express a willingness to help them find the right resources. Normalize getting help and talking through difficult life experiences when you remind them of professional, confidential resources that are available to them. Some resources that you can point them towards include:

  • Habif Health and Wellness Center: (314) 395-5595 or Student Portal for Counseling Appointments
  • TimelyCare and TimelyCare Hotline: (833) 4-TIMELY (WashU Telehealth and on-demand and appointment-based mental health support)
  • WashU Cares (If a student is worried about a friend or another student at WashU)
  • Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center (RSVP): (314) 935-8761
  • Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling and Resource Center: (314) 935-5099
  • The Office for Religious, Spiritual and Ethical Life offers support to students of any/no religious background.

Note that official university communications have pointed students to many of these resources, however students may be even more likely to reach out for help if a trusted faculty member is sharing them. Do your best to talk about these resources using “resource-positive” language that encourages them to reach out without shame or concern that doing so would make them less well equipped to succeed than their peers (Addy et al., 2021).

Give Students Space to Reflect

Consider giving students a few minutes to reflect, journal, or write down something about how they are feeling. This may give students needed space to acknowledge how they are feeling and process grief and trauma that they’ve experienced.

Respond to Student Difficulties with Compassion

Students who are suffering from grief, increased anxiety, and/or depression, may struggle to stay on task and to meet normal deadlines. If students are struggling and reach out to you for help, approach their concerns with compassion and empathy. You may wish to offer an extension. You may be inclined to offer students extra one-on-one time if they were struggling to focus during class. While deadlines serve an important purpose in keeping us on track in a given semester, offering some flexibility in times of extreme trauma can go a long way in helping students feel supported through difficulties.

Circle Back

Checking in soon after tragedy occurs is important, but taking the time to check back in a few weeks after an event is also critical, especially in supporting students who indicated earlier that they were struggling. By reaching out later, you’re helping the students feel seen and supported at a time when they still may be experiencing difficulties.


Should you wish to talk through any of these strategies or others that you are considering, please feel free to reach out to the CTL for a confidential conversation. In addition, you may find these resources useful:

WashU Danforth Campus Counseling Referrals
WashU Med Campus Counseling Referrals
Mental Health Services_PPT Slide to Share with Students
2022 Mental Health Services Flyer to Share with Students

Further Resources

Addy, T.M. et al. (2021). What inclusive instructors do: Principles and practices for excellence in college teaching. Stylus Publishing.

Imad, Mays (June 3, 2020) “7-ways to help students thrive during traumaInsideHigherEd

UCI: Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation “What is trauma-informed pedagogy”

National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (2020). “Guidelines for responding to the death of a student or school staff member.” SchoolCrisisCenter.org

U.S. Department of Education (2007). “Coping with the death of a student or staff member.” Emergency Response and Crisis Management Technical Assistance Center ERCMEXpress. Vol 3, Issue 2, 2007.