Memorials/Activities/Rituals Following Traumatic Events
Suggestions for Schools
School memorials, ceremonies or memory activities following a traumatic
experience serve an important function in the healing process for both
students and staff. Such activities provide the opportunity to express
emotions through a variety of ways besides talking. In addition, a
school memorial helps to bring closure to a period of grieving and serves
as a point from which to move on with regular school activities. Memorial
activities can take many forms, from tree planting or writing letters
and cards, to more traditional services. It is best to plan
a variety of activities rather than only one big event;
some students will be more comfortable, and more comforted by, one activity
versus another. Providing a range of opportunities to express feelings
Memorial activities following a large-scale traumatic event such as
the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 or the terrorist attacks of September
2001 have a somewhat different focus compared to memorials following
a student or staff death or even multiple deaths following a school
shooting or natural disaster. Closure may be difficult
to achieve, even after several weeks, due to ongoing fear that the situation
may recur or that traumatic events, such as war, may take place. In
such situations, a significant purpose of a memorial activity is to
bring people together in order to express feelings and concerns togetherto
reduce feelings of isolation and vulnerability. A further purpose is
to encourage everyone to think about wayseven very small stepsthat
can be taken to increase feelings of security and reduce conflicts that
can lead to violence at all levels.
Guidelines for Planning School Memorial Activities
Participation in memorial activities is important even when students
or school personnel do not know any of the victims or their families.
The following are key points for schools to consider:
- Proceed slowly and involve students, staff, families, and the community
in your planning and decision-making. Remember, the planning and construction
of the memorial in Oklahoma City for the victims of the bombing of
the Murrah Federal Building took five years.
- Schools should form a committee that includes administrators, teachers,
parents and students to plan memorial activities. It is very important
to involve students in the planning process including those who had
personal ties to the victims if possible.
- Memorial events can be planned as a series of activities, not just
the more traditional permanent marker or structure in memory of those
who died. Schools can hold group services as well as involve
classrooms in creating their own tributes, artwork, cards, letters,
- Memorial activitiesat least the initial activityshould
take place within one week of the event if possible.
- Demonstrate acknowledgement of and sensitivity toward issues of
diversity including culturally specific rituals, traditions, beliefs,
activities, and practices.
Suggested Memorial Activities
- A temporary memorial site can be established. Flowers, notes, poems,
ribbons, stuffed animals, pictures and other objects can be brought
by students and staff to a designated location at school to pay tribute
to those who died and those who helped to rescue and support survivors.
School and community input should be obtained to determine if a more
permanent place for these objects is feasible or to otherwise determine
an appropriate, sensitive way to dismantle the memorial site. The
location of permanent memorials at school should be considered very
carefully and locations other than main entrances are recommended.
- Schools and communities who have experienced significant traumas
often look for what is termed as the gift of hope; i.e.,
activities and projects that will make a difference and prevent similar
tragedies in the future. Following violent events, activities and
curriculum that address tolerance and bullying would be appropriate
- Writing activities can be particularly helpful for students of all
ages. Students can write and send cards, letters and posters to the
families of the victims (in care of a support organization such as
the Red Cross) or to those involved in rescue work (police and fire
personnel). Older students might also write to local, state or national
- Be sure to involve all students, including those with disabilities.
Activities can be tailored to the cognitive and emotional development
levels of all students. Special education staff can be helpful in
assuring that all students feel included and that activities are appropriate
Memorial activities should be planned to be appropriate to the developmental
level of students involved.
- Young children need to do something to express their grief, even
though they may not really understand all that has happened. Drawingsto
hang up in the school hallway, to send to the firemen and policemen
who helped victims, to send to school children in disaster areasare
an excellent way for young children to express and share their feelings.
They can also perform songs or reading of poems as part of a school-wide
- Adolescents need activities that provide them with a sense of contribution
to the schools and communitys efforts, not only in recognition
of the event and honoring the victims, but in preventing such tragedies
in the future. Involve middle school and high school students in all
aspects of planning memorial activities, including performing as well
as helping with setting up and cleaning up; gather their suggestions
for prevention of such eventssuch as ideas about improving security
(locally or more globally) and increasing tolerance and peaceful conflict
resolution. Students might be encouraged to write members of Congress
or appropriate agencies with their suggestions. In response to terrorism
or war-related events, older students might also benefit from studying
the political and religious issues that might help explain the origins
of hatred and fanaticism.
Specific Guidelines for School Memorial Services
- Involve students of all ages in planning the service.
- Keep the memorial service brief and appropriate to the age of the
students. For elementary students, 15-20 minutes is appropriate; for
older students, up to an hour.
- Include music and student performances. Playing soothing music as
people enter and leave the service will help set and maintain a calm
- Preview the service with students, parents and staff ahead of time.
Teachers should help students anticipate how this will be different
from typical school assemblies, and should discuss appropriate behavior.
- Have several brief speakers. Select individuals who are well known
to students and who represent security and safetypeople who
students can recognize as able to provide reassurances and support
(mayor, superintendent, local police chief or school liaison officer,
- Invite family members to attend.
- For memorial services/programs, all staff and students should attend
(unless parents specifically object). Such programs can be very powerful
in uniting the school community, and send the message that each individual
is important. If some students choose to not attend, provide a quiet
activity as an alternative.
- Involve classrooms by inviting them to bring and hang a class banner
or poster to honor the victims or promote peace.
- Use symbols of life and hope in memorial activities. Balloons and
candles can be used very effectively to promote a positive, uplifting
message that acknowledges pain and sadness yet also is hopeful for
- Following a school-wide memorial service, students should return
to their classrooms for at least a short time prior to dismissal.
This allows time to talk with each other, their teacher or a mental
health staff member (if available) to debrief the experience.
- Provide a forum that allows the inclusion of diverse traditions
and rituals that are specific to members of the community.
Particularly following events that will have no real closure for an
extended time (i.e., because recovery efforts will be slow, because
identification of the perpetrators may not be resolved quickly, because
the impact of the event has long-term consequences, etc.), it is important
for schools to consider an activity to address ongoing concerns. Schools
- Linking with other community efforts (such as food drives or other
donation activities to children and families displaced by the attacks)
- Establishing and implementing conflict resolution, tolerance and
other instructional programs that have long-term prevention goals
- Building a permanent memorial or establishing an ongoing memorial
fund for disaster relief for current and future tragedies.
For further information on promoting tolerance among children and youth,
contact NASP at (301) 657-0270 or visit NASPs website at www.nasponline.org
© 2002, National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East
West Hwy., #402, Bethesda, MD 20814; (301) 657-0270.