Counsellor’s Corner: It’s not about wins and losses

About mid-way through my career, I began advising my younger teaching colleagues, “Don’t get too hung up on wins and losses. You don’t want to be taking credit for successful students or blaming yourself for unsuccessful students. You just want to stand and deliver your lessons and trust that, if you have given your best, the lessons will land – sooner or later.” I have been pretty good about following my own advice, particularly when it comes to successful students. I am quick to recognize that I was just one of many teachers who have crossed their path on the way to the success to which they seemed destined.

On the other hand, there’s the losses.

This summer I experienced a loss that has been difficult to move past. A young lady who I had under my charge as a guidance counsellor took her own life. She was a difficult student to reach while she was at our school. Though bright, intelligent and thoughtful, she struggled to find her place in a traditional learning environment. Our learning team put plans in place to help her make things work at school but eventually, in her Grade 12 year, she withdrew and signed up for correspondence courses. I did not put up a fight: traditional schooling (attend your classes, hand in your work, wait for a mark) wasn’t working and perhaps a self-directed approach would provide more dividends. A little over a year after she left school, she committed suicide.

If I was following my own advice, I would move on from the loss. I would say, “This is so sad, but we did what we could. We tried to help her, but she decided to go out on her own.” However, the lessons that our community tried to impart never landed with this student. As a member of the learning team that tried to help her, I feel like I failed to recognize that spark that could help her find her place in the world. I wondered, could I have done more? I know I am not alone. I suppose that is what suicide does to those of us who are left to reflect on what might have been.

Her funeral was very sad and very quiet. No one really knew what to say to each other. At the funeral parlour, her mother and I shared an embrace and a few words of comfort. I spoke with her brothers who vowed to be strong for their parents. Her father was shaken to the core, unable to speak in the short time I was there, but gracious enough to accept my condolences. Everyone in the room was understandably stunned and grief stricken.

There is a confusing finality to death by suicide. It is just so difficult to comprehend a death by choice – especially for a young person. As counsellors, we spend a lot of time dealing with suicidal ideation. Sometimes it feels like we are spending many days walking kids back from the abyss. But we do it, day in and day out, we walk them back.

And sometimes, it happens anyway. A young woman or young man feels there is no way out and succumbs to the pressure.

A colleague of mine once told me, “If we lose a student, recognize that it was not a single word, phrase or action that led to that final outcome. It was a confluence of life events that took them to a point from which they could not recover.” That made a lot of sense to me at the time and, on a rational level, still does. However, on an emotional level, now that I have lost one to whom I felt invested, I feel conflicted. Even though I had not seen the student in over a year, I wondered if I could have helped a little bit more.

I suppose a situation like this will make me a better counsellor. If I can separate myself from the busyness of the job, I’ll be more compassionate, more thoughtful and more engaged. While I think I am pretty good at all these things, perhaps this will be the unwitting outcome of this tragedy.

In the end, all that prevails when a young lady takes her life is sadness. May she rest in peace. 

By: Sean Dolan

Sean Dolan taught for 20 years before moving into Guidance and Career Education six years ago. He is currently working as a high school guidance counsellor at St. Marcellinus Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario.