Partners in Grief


In Oakland, Calif., there are a lot of homicides especially for a fairly small city of about 400,000 people. Last July, there were seven homicides in seven days. Victims ranged in age from 15 to 84. Six of them occurred near the school where I taught. One was a friend of many of my former students and a cousin of a little girl I mentor.

Friends of the victim memorialized him on Facebook. Some talked about wanting to leave Oakland because of the violence. My 9-year-old mentee said that while her cousin was killed, she had no feelings about it and didn’t want to talk about it, ever.

I’ve seen a lot of young people grieve losses and traumas.  

I’ve learned a lot since I started teaching in Oakland 13 years ago, but I still do not know how to most effectively deal with these situations. I have compassion. My heart breaks every time, but it’s impossible to make things better or guarantee it will never happen again. All I can do is be present, listen, and give hugs if wanted. Although there have been far too many incidents to remember, a few stand out. 

In my second year of teaching, a third-grader saw her cousin shot in the face by a rival gang member. My student came to school the next day. Her body shook uncontrollably and I didn’t know what to do except to let her write and draw and talk to me when she wanted. There were no funds for a counselor at the school.

Two years later, the father of one of my students was stabbed to death in his apartment. The student, again, came to school the next day. When I tried to get help on how to deal with it, the administrator pointed out that at least the student hadn’t lived with his father—as if this lessened the trauma. The student never mentioned his father’s death.

Another year passed, in class we were reading a humorous story about a cowboy who owed some debt collectors and got out of paying the debt by playing dead and scaring the debt collectors in the graveyard. We worked to connect readings to real life. One of my students told me about his uncle, who was killed by someone trying to collect on a debt. 

Some of these kids could speak about trauma without appearing to have any emotions. Others broke down hysterically. I still grieve when a kid loses someone to a violent death. At some point, it might be easy to get jaded and think that it’s just something that happens in certain areas. It’s a tragedy every time and doesn’t make sense. As teachers, we can be a pillar of support and stay consistent when the world does not seem to make sense. We can be someone who students can talk to when everyone else in their life is confused and angry, and we can grieve alongside them.

Harris is a teacher, tutor and volunteer in California.


i am an 8th grader, 13 years

Submitted by Aaliyah on 2 January 2013 - 3:11pm.

i am an 8th grader, 13 years old. I never really understood life until now. I leraned that it's very precious, and not to take it for granted. you can die any day, any hour, any minute, any second. That's what i fear the most. If i take care of myself though, i know i still have a long life ahead of me. Ilearned to make the best out of every moment, to live as if i will die today, and to learn as if i will live forever. most importantly thogh, i learned that the purpose of life, is a life of purpose, and that's something i will teach forever. Thanks for the heartbreaking story, which made me realize how important life really is. -Aaliyah Hunter

Dear Bronwyn, Thanks for your

Submitted by Jill E. Thomas on 26 December 2012 - 6:21pm.

Dear Bronwyn,

Thanks for your blog post. I also teach in Oakland, and relate all too well to these stories. I'm in my eighth year and struggling with the effects of vicarious trauma. I wonder how to be a "pillar of support" without crumbling at home. I'm afraid the lack of funding for counseling services is rampant in our district and in our broke state and teacher are being expected to take on more and more. I often joke that I should have an honorary MSW for all of the counseling and social work that I do on a daily basis. I wonder: how do you KEEP doing this work without feeling broken?


Oh, it's hard. I'm about to

Submitted by Bronwyn on 28 December 2012 - 11:39pm.

Oh, it's hard. I'm about to write a blog about leaving OUSD actually, for all those reasons. The biggest thing is to have enough support for yourself. Make sure you have friends, family, or some kind of community to support YOU.