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Our Collective Reflection - Losing a Classmate

At the age of 14, we lost a classmate from a tragic accident

Photo of Pearl Sequeira
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In this collective reflection, a group of adult women reflect on a tragic death that affected us when we were 14 years old.

We grew up in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), home to some of the world's beautiful wadis. Wadis are dry riverbeds found in deserts. They can hold water, and act as natural pools. They are prone to flash floods during heavy rains.

When I was 14 years old, I was playing with family friends in a hotel swimming pool. It was bright, sunny and ~ 45 C. All of a sudden dark rain clouds surrounded us, and our parents pulled us out of the swimming pool and into the safety of our rooms. For the next few hours, I sat next to the window and watched a severe thunderstorm pass by. It was ferocious. A big wooden sheet flew across the pool, and a significant distance past us.  I just hoped  no one was outside and facing the elements alone.  

The next day, we heard about deaths in a wadi due to flash floods. A few days later, the local newspapers confirmed the news. A group of young people, ranging from the age of 14 to 25 drowned to death. One of these people, was our classmate G. She was 14 years old.

G was a new student in our school, and joined our class at the age of 13. Like most 13 year olds, we were awkward and struggled with the dynamics of high school. We did not really get to know her, except when we worked together on  school projects. She was a lovely person and we knew she too was struggling to find her space in a new school.

I still remember the moment I heard G died. I was devastated. Like her, we were both enjoying the last days of summer, with our families. How did she die? Was she swimming in a natural wadi pool? Did someone help her? Were her legs entangled with the wadi weeds? Or was she trapped with her cousins in their 4-wheel drives (SUVs)? Why did a good person like G have to suffer? As a group, we all wondered if we could have spent more time with her and made her feel more welcome in our class. Our emotions ranged from sadness to guilt and  shame. 

G's funeral was a difficult day. In Sri Lankan and Indian Catholic cultures, a Funeral Mass is held for the deceased, followed by burial service. The Mass and burial is open to all members of the community. After these services, close friends and relatives visit the family's home and share a meal with them. Some of us went to her parents' home, and still remembers the calm comforting smile her Mum had. Her Mum thanked us for sharing memories of G, and we wondered how broken she must have felt as she listed to stories of her daughter, and only child. For one of us, attending the luncheon with her family gave us comfort to have been there and spent quality time with G's mum. 

As we looked back on this moment in our lives, we were saddened  that at the time,  no grief counselling was offered to us at school. Teachers took no interest in understanding our emotions, and we were all expected to just move forward like nothing tragic happened. Further, we just dealt with G's death. Not for G's parents though.  G's parents, and her Uncles and Aunties, together, lost so many young family members, all at once.

G passed away close to 25 years ago. With this end-of-life challenge, we started thinking about G's parents, Uncles and Aunties and remaining cousins. Did they find a way to rebuild their family together, knowing that at every Christmas, birthday, and wedding anniversary celebrations, their children were no longer there to build more memories?   

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

How can we help children of different ages cope with death and the ramifications? What role do teachers play in helping their students cope with death? How do parents help in these discussions? Grief is complex, so is consolation and sorrow. What does this look like for different people?


Join the conversation:

Photo of Chandra Shekhar

Photo of Pearl Sequeira

Bettina Fliegel & Chiara Pineschi   - Thank you to both of you for your comments. Chiara - I did read your post, and thank you for sharing your thoughts.

I posted this collective write-up  on my FB wall, and I got great commentary, which I shall share below:

-  "Teachers took no interest in understanding our emotions" -> One person felt it was rather harsh. I explained that this comment was made by a couple of friends, and given the topic is death - painful emotions are brought up. It may sound harsh, but it reflects the true feelings of my friends. 

- My friends from other academic years (1 or 2 yrs younger to me), mentioned that they too were affected by the death. They discussed the tragic accident amongst themselves, but teachers were 'ill-equipped in terms of grief counselling. It wasn't spoken of when we were growing up." Another person stated 'I don't know if it was lack of training or just a society thing."

- One mentioned that someone I know of, lost 2 siblings during this event; was there during the accident and witnessed the whole thing.

These comments reflect the lack of capacity of teachers to help students deal with death (and provides an opportunity at the same time for system innovation). Further, I'd argue that employers also do not provide capacity to deal with death. I've had to deal with death of an employee, and saw discrepancies in how services were provided. We need to understand how death affects not just those in the immediate circle, but those outside this circle as well. 

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Hi Pearl.  Thank you for sharing this story.  By chance I have been thinking a lot about this topic recently, sudden unexpected death particularly of those that seem "too young", whatever that means in context.    I like your provocations.  I wonder if a mechanism for reflection for all that are involved might be helpful, not only the youth, in the scenario you experienced.  What might that be and how might it be facilitated? 
For young people in particular who is in their lives that can be called on for support?  How can communities organize resources so that there is a mechanism in place to support those in crisis?  What institutions exist where this might occur?   (schools, health centers, churches, community centers...)
One last thought - I think it is also important for the care givers, (professionals, parents etc), to have mechanisms in place to reflect and process as well, particularly in situations like the one you experienced where several people from one community lost their lives suddenly.   It is hard for all involved. 

Photo of Chiara Pineschi

Thanks for sharing your story. I find it difficult to imagine what would it be to experience the death of a classmate at that age. I seriously agree on the matter that schools should provide more support in case something similar happens. Maybe you would like to read my own story about childhood and death: How I first experienced the idea of death . Death surely is an issue that needs to be addressed with children and young adults.

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