Principals of Postvention

Before presenting a plan to respond to the issues raised by these questions, interrelated principles of postvention are outlined. The postvention plan is on the principles of reducing fear, facilitating grieving, and promoting education.


Reduce Fear

Fear is the most overpowering and debilitating human emotion. Fear can cause us to flee in panic, act irrationally, become immobilized, say things we regret, and act in other ways that later are embarrassing to us. To deal with fear, we first recognize that fear breeds in the unknown. People are most afraid of what they don’t understand, of mysterious, dark, different, unknown situations. The neighbors’ German Shepherd running at you, riding the subway, or driving to Toronto may each be scary the first time, but once you get to know the dog, have taken the subway a few times, or made the trip to Toronto often, you are much less afraid. Experience reduces the unknown and thereby reduces fear. An earthquake, especially one resulting in death, produces so many unanswered questions, leaves so much unknown, and thus creates fear. What made it happen? Will it happen again? Is the school really safe? Am I safe at home?


Will the next one get me? Why didn’t God do something! Is there any place that’s really safe?


As a result of so many unanswerable questions, the atmosphere in a school following an earthquake may be tinged with fear. Students and staff may feel unsure of themselves, confused, afraid of what else might happen, and not know how to behave or what to say.


Most of us grow up not thinking much about earthquakes. They only happen to other people, people we heard of or read about. It’s hard to imagine that a major earthquake, especially one that kills people, would ever happen to our friends, family, or community, and when it does, many people feel insecure and afraid. Something that wasn’t supposed to be part of the plan, something that wasn’t supposed to happen has happened, and if that can happen, then anything can happen.


An earthquake can pull the rug out from under basic beliefs about how the world is and leave us feeling unsure, unsafe, and wondering what we can count on with certainty. It’s in this sense that an atmosphere of fear may prevail in a school the days following an earthquake. Of course, those friends and staff closest to those who may have died will be most affected; but the tragedy will affect everyone in the school to some extent.


It is very difficult for any constructive activity to take place when people are afraid. It’s hard to concentrate, hard to take tests, write essays, or listen to lectures. It’s even hard to feel sadness, remorse, or other normal grief feelings. Hence the reduction of fear is the first major goal for the school following a tragedy. We can’t expect to eliminate it, but we can reduce it by reducing the unknowns.


While exercising sensitivity, we reduce fear by providing students and staff factual information about what happened, the deaths, and the grieving process to be expected in the days ahead by organizing the school day with as few changes as possible and by providing an open, accepting atmosphere allowing the “secret” fears, questions, and feelings of students and staff to come out.


*Reprinted with permission from Thomas T. Frantz


Facilitate Grieving

Grief is the normal, healthy, appropriate response to death or loss. Anyone who knew those that were killed is going to experience grief, from the parents whose bereavement will normally last 2 to 3 years to tangential acquaintances whose grief will be measured in days. Students and staff don’t get a choice of whether to feel grief, but they do get to choose how they’ll respond to it.


People who deny their grief, pretend it’s not a big deal, or insist they’re not going to let it bother them, or try to cover it up with bravado, laughter, or stoicism usually have a much harder time resolving their grief than do people who are able to grieve more expressively.


Each person grieves in his or her own way, a way that has been learned by experience with loss over the years. A student or staff member’s way of grieving or coping with loss can be predicted (based on past experience with loss) and is not likely to change in the midst of a crisis like the aftermath of an earthquake.


Accordingly, a wide range of grieving behavior needs to be tolerated, e.g., screaming in anguish, pounding the lockers in anger, sobbing in the hallway, stunned silence, inability to answer even simple questions, seeming totally unaffected as if nothing happened, or saying as one boy did upon being told of his friend’s death, “Good, now I don’t have to pay him the ten bucks I owe him.” (This last remark was made in shock and he spent the next month being attacked for it and apologizing over and over for it.)


The initial response of most people to learning that someone they know has died is shock. Shock is usually a numbness, feeling like in a fog or spacey during which the full impact of what’s happened may not have sunk in. People in shock usually don’t talk a lot and mostly need friends to be patient and not assume that they’re unaffected just because they’re not emotional.


Other reactions to be expected for some people following death are anxiety over what else might happen; anger at the person that died (e.g., for not heeding warnings); blame at someone for not doing something to save her; and perhaps guilt for surviving when he didn’t. Naturally sadness and feeling the loss will usually replace shock, anxiety and anger and remain as the major result of the death for a long time.


While each person’s way of grieving needs to be accepted, people who can get their grief out by talking, crying, expressing anger or guilt, writing, reading, exercise, painting, music, etc. are usually better able to resolve their grief and in less time than those who can’t or are not allowed to grieve. Thus, the school’s postvention program needs to allow and encourage the natural expression of grief, especially immediately after the tragedy, but also, for some students, in the weeks and months ahead.


In this vein, one of the most predictable and significant consequences of a tragedy is that it will unlock and trigger unresolved grief in many students and staff. That is, there will be a sadness in the school not only because a student has died, but because grief over people’s previous losses will be activated. For example, the girl whose father drowned last year, the teacher whose miscarriage at 6 months no one would talk about, the boy whose mother has breast cancer, the custodian whose dad is deteriorating with Alzheimer’s disease at a nursing home, the freshman whose parents are fighting out a bitter divorce all will be feeling both the effects of the tragedy and, now even more intensely, the pain of their own life.


The school’s postvention program must take into consideration both grief over previously unresolved losses and give high priority to facilitating the grieving process of students and staff.


Promote Education

The purpose of a school is to educate its students and (if Anna who says in The King and I, “by our students we’ll be taught” is right) staff. Since we learn more from problems, crisis, and tragedies than on average days, an earthquake will be an intense time of learning—not reading and arithmetic, but of things perhaps more important.


The postvention program must be developed to promote constructive and useful learning in the aftermath of tragedy. Students and staff can be helped to learn how they react in a crisis, what people do that help most, how to help other people, what they really believe about death, that people can cry and still be strong, and, measured against the criterion of death, what’s really important in life.


Obviously no one wants a student to die; however, given that the death has happened, inevitably learning is going to take place. The only question is, is the school going to allow it to occur haphazardly or will a postvention program be developed to promote constructive grieving, ways of helping others, and understanding of death and people in crisis.



Principles of Postvention

A variety of school and community personnel will be available to help students during the day. After school a second general staff meeting is held to review the day and prepare for tomorrow.


  1. Selection of the Crisis Response Team. A crisis response team of perhaps three to five members with authority to make decisions in the time of crisis needs to be chosen. The team is responsible for both planning and implementation of postvention. Among its members should be staff who have some respect in the school, are sensitive to student and faculty needs, are committed to personal involvement in a crisis response, are able to be decisive, and who are relatively calm under fire. The crisis response team would conduct planning for the remaining tasks and, along with the building principal if he or she is not on the team, be responsible for carrying out the school’s response to a suicidal death on the days succeeding it.


  1. Identification of Media Liaison Person. One person within the school district should be designated to handle all contact with newspaper, television, radio, and magazine reporters and shield school personnel from media intrusion. Media personnel should not be allowed in school. All school students and staff should be firmly instructed to refer any phone or personal contact, whether in school or at home, to the media liaison person whose phone number should be readily available and who should receive instructions on what information to release from the crisis response team. A press release should be prepared to serve as a basis for talking with the media. In general, the less publicity death receives the better.


  1. Identification of Family Liaison Person. The crisis response team should designate a representative of the school to initiate immediate and appropriate contact with the family of the dead student, to express the empathy and concern of the school, to answer parents’ questions regarding school plans; to ascertain family wishes and plans regarding funeral, wake and memorials; to discretely obtain the information about the death and the circumstances surrounding it; and to offer to help the family with support, contact with community resources, or perhaps tangible help like driving, food,  babysitting, or talking with siblings. The family liaison person should be educated about helpful and unhelpful responses to grieving people, be sensitive to family privacy, and use intuition about maintaining some contact with the family during the weeks ahead. The crisis response team may choose one family liaison person for all situations or a different one may be designated for each crisis based on the person’s relationship to the deceased student or his/her family.


  1. Organization of Staff/Telephone Network. A telephone network or tree should be developed wherein each school staff member is called as soon as possible after the incident has occurred, given the brief basic facts, and notified of the time and place of the emergency staff meeting to be held usually before the next school day. Care should be taken to reach not only faculty, but all auxiliary and related personnel as well. Furthermore, selected staff members in schools throughout the district should be notified, particularly in schools attended by siblings or schools from which support staff may be borrowed to help during the crisis.