Working through Campus Tragedy Alongside the Families of Deceased Community Members // written by: Mahauganee D. Shaw & Amanda Alberti

Mahauganee D. Shaw
Miami University

Amanda Alberti
Miami University

An unfortunate and challenging reality for today’s student affairs practitioners is that campus tragedies are anticipated events within the scope of our work responsibilities. Although deeply troubling, time on the job teaches us that isolated tragedies such as student deaths from life-threatening illness, suicide, substance use or other causes can be normalized incidents in the course of a given academic year. Moreover, especially over the past two decades, we have been shaken with sobering reminders that our campuses are at-risk for widespread loss of life via unthinkable tragedies: an athletic team involved in a fatal crash while traveling, students perishing in a residence hall fire, the dire consequences of an active shooter on campus, the deep impact of unprecedented natural disasters. When such tragedy occurs, we must respond at many different, and often conflicting, levels. At one end of the spectrum, we face pressures of the media whereby our tragedies quickly evolve into local, regional, or national headline news.  On the other hand, we are charged with the delicate responsibilities of working with family members connected to the deceased.

This tension between responding to crisis both broadly and intimately is illustrated by the events surrounding the residence hall fire at Seton Hall University in 2000 upon which then-president Bob Sheeran reflected, “Our saddest day was also our most ‘public’ day” (Brand, Foote, & Sheeran, “Media Relations” section, ¶1). National news crews were on the scene reporting the story while the tragedy unfolded. By the time it was clear that three students perished and several others injured (some quite severely), the public already had access to the story.  Meanwhile, campus emergency responders were still in the process of contacting families of the injured/deceased to officially share the news and to begin the process of meeting their diverse array of needs.

Emergency management manuals and a growing body of scholarship on campus experiences with tragedy (e.g., Jenkins & Goodman, 2015; Shaw, 2016) provide some procedural guidance with respect to handling the opposing forces presented by an emergency scenario such as the Seton Hill fire.  However, our practical experiences with emergency response suggest that student affairs administrators often receive sparse training related to interacting with the relatives of student victims in the wake of a critical incident. This article helps fill the gap by examining literature and promising campus practices related to working with families in the aftermath of tragedy. It is organized to align with the crisis management stages and tasks that most often follow a tragedy: responding to the incident, recovering from the impact of the incident, and remembering and learning from it. In the sections that follow, we discuss the role of campus professionals in working with families through each of these stages, outlining the challenges inherent to each stage and some suggested solutions to those challenges, including examples where appropriate.

Responding to Tragedy: Walking the Line between Head and Heart

In many ways, responding to a campus tragedy requires campus first responders to walk a tightrope between leading with their heads and leading with their hearts. This is particularly true when a response extends beyond the campus community to the families of students. Reflecting on a campus response to the deaths of six students driving back to campus from spring break travels, Whipple (2006) shared the following:

The [institution’s emergency response] team agreed that it was crucial for the university to contact the families. As a vice president, I have had to make my share of tough phone calls to parents, but I dreaded these. The associate vice president for student affairs—always a voice of reason in crisis—said that he wanted to call the families on behalf of the university, and I was happy to let him do it. In retrospect, I was somewhat angry with myself for not making the calls myself, as I realized that this was not about my feelings but about the families and their feelings. In a similar situation (which I hope never occurs), I will make those calls. (p. 73)

This passage highlights the wrestling between head and heart wherein the battle between logical reasoning and emotion is a central dilemma for campus professionals on the frontlines of tragedy. The head aspect of this dilemma is guided by an understanding of professional responsibilities, institutional crisis response protocols, and legal parameters. The heart aspect is guided by human connection to people in pain. 

Over time, common practices have emerged which serve to guide the ways that campus professionals balance the draw between their hearts and heads to effectively communicate and support family members of student victims of tragedy.  One of the most common practices for working with families is for a single campus professional to be assigned to the task of acting as a liaison for the family. The liaison is responsible for maintaining communication between the family and the institution. Communications to the family typically include updates regarding the institution’s progress in the response and recovery processes, as well as providing needed support and assistance to the family during that time. Communications from the liaison back to institutional leaders and campus partners, at minimum, include the family’s wishes as it pertains to how their student is remembered and eulogized, and how their remains and belongings are handled. While communication is the key role of this position, one of the chief benefits of assigning a liaison is granting the family a consistent contact who is familiar with them, their past communications, and their desires.

Oftentimes, the decision of whom to assign as a family liaison is connected to pre-existing relationships. For example, a campus professional with a close relationship to an injured or deceased student may be the best choice for comfortable and amicable communication with the family. When there is no clear relational choice, the decision is often made based on personal commonalities or position titles. When the University of Alabama lost 6 students in a 2011 tornado, for example, a few top administrators were assigned as liaisons to all families (L. Davis, personal communication). While the liaison role was assigned to people based on their positions, other characteristics—such as sharing a hometown or cultural background with a family—factored in. Regardless of who is assigned as a family liaison, the goal is to communicate in a manner that is caring, open, honest, and comprehensive. The relationship that forms between family members and their assigned liaisons usually creates a bond that transcends time and distance. It is not uncommon for this relationship to continue on a personal level, even after the business aspect has been completed. 

The cementing of a relationship between a campus liaison and a family is an indication of how deeply the loss of life impacts campus professionals. Expounding on the concept of compassionate leadership after campus tragedy, Treadwell (2016) writes about student affairs professionals going above and beyond the expectations of their positions to support victims, their families, and each other:

…including travel arrangements, counseling, meals, time away, and other basic needs. One arranged for snow removal from a victim’s sidewalk, allowing for loved ones to safely visit the family. Another arranged translators with the help of a foreign consulate to ensure that the family understood the university’s actions. A third recalled staff members who packed a deceased student’s belongings to protect the family from that unbearable task (p. 19)

While it is important to care for the families of student victims of tragedy, it is equally important to care for caretakers, our on-campus first responders. Existing scholarship suggests avenues for addressing the needs of campus first responders (Griffin, 2007; Paterson, 2006; Zdziarski, 2006). In times of tragedy, it is important to remember not only the needs of those most directly and deeply impacted—victims, their family and friends—but also the needs of those who are expected to care for the impacted members of our communities. 

Knowing the context of the tragedy and the response process should assist in identifying resources that are of best assistance to the staff members on the frontlines of the response process, allowing those of us on the sidelines to support them as needed. One example is the choice of a family liaison who shared a close personal relationship with the student victim. A professional who was close to the student may be quick to volunteer to be the family’s liaison, or may readily accept such an assignment. Yet, this role may cause the professional to experience heightened trauma. As colleagues of people working in the family liaison role, whether we supervise or report to them, student affairs professionals should take the time to check in with these peers. This includes helping them to assess when or if they need to take a step back, and being willing to assist by helping to complete some tasks related either to the family liaison role or to their regular duties.

Recovering from Tragedy: Moving Forward Respectfully

Recovery from a campus tragedy includes the long-term process of moving back toward a state of normalcy after the immediate needs of the response process have been completed. As we envision moving forward following a student death, the impact of the loss is likely to reach several different individuals and groups: campus friends, mentors and acquaintances (i.e. professors, student affairs staff, and roommates), the first-response campus professionals, campus professionals serving as liaisons to the deceased student’s family, and even campus members who did not know the deceased student(s). As we work to tend to the unique needs of those within our campus community, we must not forget that the people most impacted outside of our campus community, grieving family members, still need our care and attention.

Appropriately, following the death of a student, university officials often focus their attention and resources on immediate family members of the student victim as well as roommates and other close friends of the student who attend the institution. Institutions can provide several resources to help community members cope. One way that this support can be provided is through residence hall and campus group counseling opportunities. It can be beneficial to invite counselors and experts to make themselves available to the campus community in the residence halls, student center, or other high-traffic campus locations throughout the week following the student death. Hosting hours in the student center, or any other central campus location, is likely to attract those who do not frequent residential spaces. 

Meilman and Hall (2006) outline a format used at Cornell University to lead community support meetings in the aftermath of an unexpected student death; they describe discussion exercises the group completes and the rationales and outcomes of those exercises for helping people to effectively cope and grieve. These types of support meetings are usually scheduled as an institution moves toward recovering from a tragedy. While it is not part of the Cornell format to do so, inviting families to attend and participate in these meetings can be beneficial for the grieving process of both the family members and the campus community members in attendance. Having an opportunity to remember the deceased together and to complete the outlined exercises alongside others who are feeling the impact of loss can help families to tangibly experience the connection of their deceased student to the campus community. 

Over time, the relationship with the family may naturally begin to fade; a variety of factors contribute to how quickly or slowly this may happen. Families of deceased students may face financial or emotional challenges with accessing the campus space. In the case of financial challenges, it may not be fiscally feasible for the family to visit the campus regularly in the months and years after the tragedy. The decision of whether to coordinate an annual commemoration should take this into account. Alternatively, sometimes family members who are financially able to visit campus are not emotionally able to do so. Understandably, memories of the student could bring more pain than progress for families. In the end, each relationship will form, progress, and possibly end in its own unique way. Campus professionals serving as family liaisons should work delicately to assess the effectiveness of their relationship with the family and determine on a case-by-case basis if communication with the family is still beneficial to both parties. 

Healing from Tragedy: Remembering alongside Family 

As institutional leaders help the campus community to process a student’s death and regain a sense of normalcy thereafter, the task of remembering and learning from the incident takes precedent. In instances of student death, memorialization is a common remembrance practice that can help an entire campus community to walk the line between head and heart. It allows family members to gather alongside campus community members to reflect on lost lives and to give and receive comfort. Memorials provide a space for people to blend their logical reasoning about a tragic chain of events with their heartfelt sentiments about the people involved; in this way, memorials assist with the healing process. Yet, in the planning of any memorial, communication with the families of those to be eulogized is of paramount importance. 

A memorial can exist in an endless array of forms based on the needs of the campus, the family, and the community. To care for the immediate needs of family and campus community, some institutions host remembrance ceremonies or candlelight vigils in close proximity to a tragic event. These events allow participants to see the amount of support that exists within the university community. Appalachian State University has a unique approach to memorialization. In the wake of a student death, the campus community receives an email promoting a memorial book where students and other community members can write messages, leave pictures, or otherwise create a tangible display to be shared with the family of the deceased. The campus policies for working through student death, including guidelines for the creation and delivery of the memorial book, are made available on the institutional website (Appalachian State University, 2015). 

These memorial books allow campus community members to express their condolences in a way that does not intrude on the grieving process of the family members of the deceased student. Unlike with a memorial ceremony, families who receive a memorial book are able to accept condolences in their own time. Families of deceased students have a lot to think about in the time immediately following the loss of their student including funeral arrangements and their emotional survival. To have a plan already in place for acknowledging the loss to the university community is one way to provide stability during a very unpredictable and unexpected time. 

Considering the long-term needs of family and friends to remember a student’s passing, institutions may offer memorialization options that leave a more permanent footprint on campus. For example, families may be offered opportunities to plant a tree or dedicate some other portion of campus landscaping (e.g., a boulder or a bench with a memorial plaque). In situations where the tragedy is experienced deeply and significantly across the community, an institution may also elect to build a memorial structure that commemorates lost life. As one of the key target audiences for a memorial ceremony, or anticipated future visitors for a physical memorial, the family’s wishes should be prioritized but must also be balanced with campus needs and resources. Some families may feel the need to visit physical memorials and participate in commemorations more often than others depending on their personal healing process and needs. Other family members might need to disconnect from the institution in order to properly heal.

One well-known example of campus tragedy that considers the nuances of family needs is the 1970 plane crash involving the Marshall University football team. On November 14, 1970, tragedy struck the Huntington, WV community when the airplane carrying the football team home from an away game crashed while approaching the local airport. The crash took the lives of everyone on board, 75 people, including the majority of the Marshall University football team and coaching staff, along with several Huntington, WV community members and the flight crew. This crash is yet recorded as the largest sports-related air disaster in U. S. history, and was the subject of a 2006 movie entitled “We Are Marshall.” As such a large-scale tragedy, this plane crash was extremely impactful on the lives of several people, near and far from Huntington. While there are reminders of the 1970 football team and plane crash in several places across the city of Huntington and across Marshall’s campus, there are three prominent memorial sites—one on campus, one at the site of the crash, and one in a local cemetery. All three are widely visited throughout the year.

Marshall University continues to host an annual memorial ceremony that allows a space for the families and friends of the deceased to gather alongside current Marshall students and employees, and local Huntington community members. This ceremony happens at the on-campus memorial, located directly outside of the student union. Several symbolic elements help to infuse the families of the deceased into the annual ceremony. First, there is limited seating at the ceremony, and the first few rows are reserved for family members. Second, while there are several University-affiliated speakers (e.g., president, student body representatives, athletics officials), every year there is a special invited speaker who is usually a relative of one of the deceased. This allows family members a platform to share their memories and experiences, but also allows other family members in the audience to hear from someone who shared the agonizing experience of losing a loved one in this plane crash. Third, during the ceremony, the names of the deceased are each called. As each name is called, someone places a rose representing that person on the edge of the fountain. Sometimes the rose is carried by a single person, and sometimes a pair of people. The people carrying the rose are sometimes family members, and sometimes current Marshall students or football players. 

At the close of the ceremony, the family members are invited inside the student center to a special reception in their honor. Given the efforts of University leaders to continue the annual commemoration—a decision that has been questioned in recent years—and the efforts of some families to continually attend the ceremony, many family members have developed relationships with each other over the now 46 years since the crash. This connection helps them to heal and encourages many to return to campus each year to celebrate their deceased loved ones in community.

Closing Thoughts

Each campus tragedy will offer a unique set of circumstances; this, however, should not preclude campus leaders from being prepared for the impact of tragedy on the campus community. It is important to remember when responding to a student death that no two institutions or situations are alike. As student affairs professionals, we all have natural tendencies to be nurturers, to prevent tragedy and alleviate the pain we see in others. Although you may respond in all the “right” ways, there could never truly be a response that eliminates the pain for the family of the deceased, or within the campus community. 

It is not possible to develop standard procedures that encompass exactly how to interact with next of kin after campus tragedy. The relationship established with a grieving family may be short and fleeting, or long and enduring. Whether the campus serves as an emotional anchor for family members or an emotional trigger, navigating this relational process can be a complex undertaking. Campus liaisons to families are often people who are willing and able to be vulnerable enough to engage in the emotional work of grieving and healing alongside family members. While this is commendable, it is our responsibility as professionals to make sure that interactions are not creating further risk or harm to either party as the relationship continues. When relationships between families of deceased individuals and our institutions are prolonged it is important to maintain awareness of the impacts for the family as well as for the institution and its professionals. 

Discussion Questions

  1. What policies and procedures does your institution have for working with families of deceased students, staff, or faculty? 
  2. What is your institution’s process for removing a deceased community members’ belongings from campus? How might this impact family members?
  3. How do your procedures change when there is more than one deceased person? If there is a mass number of deceased persons (campus shooting, tragic natural disaster, etc.)?
  4. How can you determine if/when it is necessary to sever communication with a grieving family? What is the emotional obligation to a family, if any?

Author Bios:

Amanda Alberti and Mahauganee Shaw first connected through the ACPA Commission on Campus Safety and Emergency Preparedness before their professional paths converged as employees of Miami University. Amanda’s entry to student affairs has been in residential life; she has made a mark on the emergency planning process on the campuses where she has worked. Mahauganee teaches courses and conducts research focused on moments of crisis and tragedy that impact campus communities, how institutions respond to such incidents, and the process of recover and healing that follows. 


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