In triage of grief at high school, the less said the better

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comApril 1, 2014 

Unidentified students console each other in front of Hilton Head Island High School on March 28, 2014, after a car wreck before school claimed the lives of two students and left two more injured.

JAY KARR — Staff photo Buy Photo

One clutched a crucifix.

One stared at the floor for 10 minutes.

A group came in and just sat, watching but not saying a word.

The Hilton Head Island High School students had reported to the library, where counselors could help them process Friday morning's heartbreaking news. Two seniors were killed in a car wreck on the way to school. Two other students in the car had been flown to a Savannah hospital.

The Rev. Jan Cook, an associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church on the island, had just finished conducting a memorial service when she got the call to come to the school to help.

In more than 30 years in the ministry, she has been on the front lines before with people dealing with accidents. And murder, school shootings and the loss of a newborn. She was once a trauma and hospice chaplain at a major hospital in San Diego.

Cook told me that you don't brush up on what to say as you answer a call like this one, to join 30 counselors at a school where 400 students had already checked out for the day.

She has learned that the less said, the better.

"It's not about what I have to say," she said. "My preparation is to pray for God to lead me. I take the lead from God, and from them."

Generic responses, such as "God needed them more in heaven," can do more harm than good, Cook said.

"What they really needed was a place to be together and talk," she said.

The community as a whole gathered in the school gym later that evening.

"The students did not want to go through the ordinary routine," Cook said. "They did not want to go to class. They didn't want to eat lunch. Doing anything normal seemed like a betrayal."

The students saw death suddenly take away someone they knew, someone their own age. Many thought for the first time: "That could be me. I could die."

The teenagers took this tangle of grief and fear to the library. School counselors were joined by a rabbi, a priest, a nun and various ministers. At that moment, there were no denominations, Cook said.

"May I sit with you?" Cook asked a girl off by herself.

"OK, but I don't want to talk about it."

For 10 minutes, they held hands and stared at the floor. The girl broke the silence with frustration. "It's so stupid what happened," she said. "They weren't even wearing seat belts."

Cook saw another moment she called "electrifying."

Latino students were in the wreck, and many who came to the library were Latino. But a group of Caucasian boys came in and sat, silently watching.

"After a while, one of them came over and put his hand on the shoulder of another student and said, 'Hey, man. I'm really sorry.' It was as though to say, 'This is part of all of us.' It was a beautiful moment."

After three hours in the school library, Cook returned to the church.

"It was a privilege to be entrusted with that moment," she said. "It could be THE worst moment in their lives. It was an unspeakable privilege."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at

Related content:

  • Hundreds attend funeral for teens killed in Hilton Head Island crash, April 1, 2014:
  • Joint funeral service to be held Monday for Hilton Head High car crash victims, March 29, 2014:

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