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Counsellor Corner: Companions on their journey

One of the greatest challenges any educator faces is finding a way to help students navigate situations that defy explanation. When a friend or parent gets ill or dies, students are forced to sort through a myriad of emotions that often leaves them feeling isolated and alone. While feeling isolated and alone at certain times in your life is part of the human condition, people often need to hear, “Hey, I’ve been there. I know what you’re dealing with and you’ll get through it.”

This prospect becomes even more challenging when external events bring fear and anxiety into the lives of students. Two recent events illustrate this point.

On Valentine’s Day, 2018, a 19-year-old former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, did the unconscionable – he entered the school with an AR-15 rifle and opened fire, killing 14 students and three staff members. The shooter timed his attack with precision, dodging school security and opening fire in a six-minute rampage that changed the lives of the families and friends of the victims – as well as people the world over.

Safety is a key theme that teachers have endeavoured to ensure for their students since schools came into existence. We are trained to be mindful of the dignity of each student. Education is about nurturing young and growing minds. It’s about sharing information with eager learners who are looking to know as much about the world as possible. This is why school shootings are so unfathomable. Why would a student feel so disenfranchised that they would attack people at a school?  How could a school – the place that should be the very hallmark of safety – become the scene of violence and terror?

Less than two months after the Parkland shooting, another tragedy struck closer to home. A coach bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team was travelling along a Saskatchewan highway when it struck a tractor-trailer at an intersection. The consequences were devastating: 15 people – players, coaches and team personnel – were killed and the other 14 passengers on board the bus were injured, some with life-changing injuries. When describing his time visiting the hospital in the immediate aftermath of the crash, Humboldt Broncos team chaplain Sean Brandow said, “To sit and hold the hand of a lifeless body…This is the valley of darkness. All I saw was darkness and hurt and anguish and fear and confusion. And I had nothing. Nothing. I’m a pastor. I’m supposed to have something.”

Chaplain Brandow’s feeling of emptiness was shared by many. The entire event seemed so unfair. Young people – and adults helping them take part in the game they loved – taken away so violently and randomly. What if the bus had passed the intersection a few seconds sooner? What if the tractor-trailer had picked up its load a few minutes later? The timing was just so horrific.

Certainly, people have found ways to cope with each tragedy. The surviving students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have become gun control activists in the United States with their March for Our Lives event in Washington inspiring 800 other protests in the U.S. and around the world. Canadians responded to the Humboldt tragedy by wearing team jerseys to school and to work and placing hockey sticks on their front porches to show their solidarity with the victims.  Meanwhile, a GoFundMe campaign (initially set up to help the families of the Humboldt Broncos victims pay for hospital parking and other expenses) took on a life of its own, skyrocketing to over $15 million and forcing organizers to find a management group to take care of the money for the victims and their families. These are admirable efforts that show the world that, while 32 souls have left us, their memory is inspiring us to be better people.

As counsellors, the worst thing we can do is get so caught up in our post-secondary pre-requisites, school timetabling and ministry initiatives that we forget (or maybe neglect is a better word) that the events of this world are creating a collective anxiety that often manifests itself in the student sitting across from us in the Guidance office. They might not know why they are anxious but maybe we can be mindful of the possibility that they have been caught up in the wave of anxiety that washed over them when they heard the news from Parkland and Humboldt. Maybe we need to be conscious of the idea that we live in an age of anxiety and that our young people are vulnerable to the hazards of living in this time and place. In the end, perhaps Chaplain Brandow feeling “nothing” is the best way to describe making sense of the senseless. All we can do is be present to our students in times of tragedy – whether personal or global – and let them know that we will be close by when they are feeling alone and supportive when they are feeling overwhelmed.  In the end, we can be companions that join them on their journey through life.   

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.

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