Grief marks days after teacher’s sudden deathThree weeks have passed since classes resumed at Superior Middle School. Students are well into their new routines, but still there are reminders. In the parking lot, a space that should be filled remains empty. The atmosphere in the green wing is more somber than usual.
By: Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
Three weeks have passed since classes resumed at Superior Middle School. Students are well into their new routines, but still there are reminders.
In the parking lot, a space that should be filled remains empty. The atmosphere in the green wing is more somber than usual.
In Barb Stahl’s seventh-grade classroom, students are no longer greeted by the bright smile and cheery laugh of their teacher.
“It’s a very sad situation, and we feel awful for Barb’s family,” said Rick Flaherty, SMS principal. “We all miss her. There’s a loss there, and it’s difficult on everyone who knew her.”
Stahl, 44, died Dec. 28 after a sudden illness. She’d taught at SMS for 15 years.
“I think because it was so unexpected and so sudden that it is even more difficult to move through the mourning process,” said Josie Hoem, green wing counselor. “That first week, of course, was extremely difficult.”
The day after the middle school administration learned of Stahl’s death, SMS utilized its emergency contact system to send a phone message to all middle school students and staff, informing them of the sad news. Flaherty said the message was sent to lessen the shock for students and staff and to give them time to grieve before returning from winter break.
The SMS crisis team also went to work. When classes resumed, the team needed support in place not only for the students but for the adults as well.
“The staff worked with Barb for a number of years,” Flaherty said. “I think it’s been even harder on them than on the students.”
On the first day after winter break, Hoem spent the entire day in Stahl’s classroom. She talked to students about the grieving process and let them know they had a safe place to express their emotions.
“And of course the adults, as they’re listening to these same conversations that we’re having, that is helpful to them as well,” Hoem said.
Additional staff members filled in for teachers who needed to step away from their classes briefly, and grief counselors from other district buildings relocated to the middle school for the first day of classes.
During the first week, the middle school staff also made a special effort to support the teachers in the green wing, where Stahl had worked.
“The teachers would come from the other wings and have lunch with the seventh-grade team, because Barb was a seventh-grade teacher, and they provided food every day,” Hoem said. “So that area was just a place where people could go and gather. They were so faithful doing that, and that was extremely helpful.
“No one was afraid to show their grief, and that normalizes it for kids too and gives them permission to cry, gives them permission to feel what they need to feel, to say the things they need to say. The kids were used to seeing teachers crying, other kids crying, and that it was OK to do that.”
Students were also invited to put their feelings on paper, and for the first two weeks after winter break, a steady line of students stopped by Hoem’s office to make cards for their teacher.
Drawings of angels and hearts adorned many of the cards, accompanied by the words “rest in peace.”
“They wanted the family to know what a wonderful teacher Barb was, how kind she was, how she was so welcoming to them,” Hoem said.
One student, Kelsey, shared a conversation she’d had with her teacher just before winter break. Stahl had noticed a necklace Kelsey wore and told her how pretty it was.
That gave Kelsey an idea.
“I got her a ring for Christmas and didn’t get to give it to her,” Kelsey wrote in her card. “So I’m going to wear it in her memory in honor of my favorite teacher.”
Another of Stahl’s students, Nolan, remembered his teacher’s cheerful disposition. He wrote at length about what Stahl meant to him and to all of her students.
“No one can replace that loving laughter or that shiny smile,” Nolan wrote. Inside the green construction paper card was a cut-out of a hand with the words, “We are reaching out to you.”
“We’re overwhelmed, some of the adults that have read some of them,” Hoem said. “We’re so overwhelmed at the sensitivity of children and the depth of understanding — how they know the pain a family’s going through.”
The large stack of brightly-colored cards was delivered to Stahl’s family earlier this week.
At the middle school, meanwhile, help will continue to be available to both students and adults. Hoem said grief counseling will be offered to any who need it, and the staff members continue to support each other.
“Some of the people were very, very close and longtime friends of Barb, and so it continues to be difficult for them, and it’s to be expected.,” Hoem said. “To come to work every day and see where her car was parked and her place where she’d stand in the hallway, you kind of look for her.”