‘People are traumatized’: Wilton High grieving after series of deaths
WILTON — The Wilton High School is trying to come to grips with the deaths of a longtime employee and two students in a span of just two weeks, Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith said Tuesday.
Cesar Jimenez, a longtime plant manager, died Sept. 20. The next day, high school junior George DiRocco died from an apparent undetected heart condition. On Monday, a high school student, whose age and identity have not been released, died from an apparent suicide.
“Our school community has suffered three tremendous losses in short order,” Smith said.
“People are traumatized,” he said. “That comes inside a pandemic where people are suffering loss. We need to be really patient with one another. This is a time of acute stress.”
Kim Zemo, the safe school climate coordinator, encouraged the idea of “practicing extraordinary kindness and slowing down and trying to support one another.”
The latest death stemmed from an incident that occurred Friday night when a student attempted suicide with a firearm in a wooded area in town, police said. The male student was taken to Norwalk Hospital before being flown to Yale New Haven Hospital where he died Monday.
“This loss is incomprehensible and we ache for this student’s family and loved ones,” Smith wrote in a letter to the school community on Monday. “This student’s death leaves us without words to express our grief or even attempt to understand this incredible loss.”
More than 200 people attended a webinar organized by the district for parents and others with Dr. Andrew Gerber, president and medical director of Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan.
“How your children deal with loss first and foremost depends on how you deal with loss,” Gerber said.
Because the tragedy concerns a child the same age as the children of parents listening, he said, “there’s no way this doesn’t affect you personally … you can imagine something you never wanted to imagine.”
Processing an incident like this occurs in stages, from the immediate to a week and a month later. He encouraged people to give themselves the time and space to have “human reactions” to it.
“You’re not going to be in a position to give [your children] the support, containment and comfort they need if you haven’t found a way to support yourself,” he said.
In terms of how to talk to children, what language to use, he said, “You have to meet people where they are at. Listen to your child and react in a flexible way to where they are in relation to the tragedy.”
Children will have different responses. Some might be sad, angry or act like nothing’s happened.
“React to what they are showing you in the moment and follow as things change over time,” Gerber said.
Parents must realize they don’t have all the answers and can’t protect their children from this kind of loss.
“We can’t give them a reason why it happened,” he said. “There’s so much we don’t know about why people have the illnesses that they have, take their lives or do harm to themselves. We have some of the answers, but we don’t know everything. … Relate the honesty of what you know and what you don’t know.”
He stressed that talking to children about suicide does not increase their risk of suicide.
“By talking about suicide to young people you create an avenue for those at risk to have more of an opportunity to talk about what’s going on,” he said.
And while talking about it as concerned parents is a positive thing, glamorizing it is a concern, which can happen in literature, on TV or in movies, Gerber said. Avoid discussing questions about where or how, he said.
He said families should also keep things as stable as possible. “This is not a time for changing routines,” he said.
At the high school, there are safe spaces where students and staff can go for support, Zemo said. There are social workers, school counselors, psychologists, outside professionals, and Mobile Crisis Intervention Services all available to help. There is also a therapy dog on-site.
A virtual support line for students and teachers who are not in school is available, Zemo added.
Students had the option to leave early Monday, but Smith said it was difficult to quantify how many students may have done that or how many may not have come in on Tuesday.
“We can’t quantify one way or the other for a pattern” of how students are seeking comfort, he said, whether it was in groups or alone.
For the past several weeks, area houses of worship have been offering opportunities for teens to gather in informal settings. Rev. Shannon White, of Wilton Presbyterian Church, praised the school district for doing an “excellent job of providing crisis care.”
Trackside Teen Center is also available every afternoon and evening to help support those who may need a safe space to spend time, its website says.