Grief and the power of words
Preface: For Jordan
Today would have been Jordan’s 34th birthday. He died a day before his 26th birthday in an accident that seems like it was months, not years ago. As my first cousin who lived only a few hundred yards away from me and my sister, I spent our childhood trying to make them listen to me, so I could teach them things. Little did I know that he was the one doing the teaching. Growing up with him prepared me for a life of transformers, Ninja Turtles, and matchbox cars, and taught me a lot about being a mom to two energetic boys.
His death also taught me about the true meaning of grief. Before Jordan’s death, I had experienced the loss of many family members, but nothing was as tragic and sudden as his passing. I did not allow myself to grieve his death until almost a year later; unconsciously, I felt that I had no right to do so. His parents and sister could grieve, they lost a child and a brother; I needed to support them, but my grief would have to wait. This, of course, is an unhealthy way to handle grief.
What follows are my personal reflections on handling grief in the classroom. As educators, we will play a pivotal role in how our students handle grief.
Grief in the classroom
Handling grief in the classroom is something that was never covered in any of my teacher education classes. Most schools have policies, protocol, and precedent in place for the way to handle a student’s death or the death of a faculty member, but more importantly is how teachers handle the situation in our own classrooms.
Throughout the course of a semester, hopefully a classroom culture has been established that includes mutual respect and trust between the teacher and the students. Following a tragedy of any type, students are going to be looking to the classroom teacher to model appropriate avenues of mourning.
Every situation is different
While the school must react, as a whole, in a similar fashion for each tragedy, in the classroom teachers will have more flexibility. One of the things I have always valued about being an English teacher is the flexibility in being able to use and pull from a variety of texts to teach any one given subject or concept. The subject of grief is no different.
Students will be feeling lots of different emotions. Some who were close to the student will feel the loss heavily and may be angry or depressed. Another group of students who did not know the student that well may not feel that they have the “right” to be upset. Other students may be inclined to judge others grief with comments such as, “She didn’t even know her that well” or “It was only her ex-boyfriend.” We have to protect each student. This death may also awaken past memories or fears in students of which we may never be aware.
Remove the word “fault”
We have a responsibility to help students to have healthy memories of the person who has passed without putting emphasis on the cause of death, particularly if it is a difficult situation involving suicide or an accident involving multiple students. Students (and most people) want black and white answers to very difficult questions. We cannot allow a discussion of “fault”.
The power of words
I have often turned to the written word to allow me to understand things that I have not experienced. We can also turn to literature for words about grief. The first winter following the untimely death of my cousin the day before his 26th birthday, I read “The First Snowfall” by James Russell Lowell. His words are a powerful representation of a parent’s grief following the death of a child.
Below you will find links to three poems about grief and a small excerpt from each. I used several of them this year for the purpose of facilitating student grief, and I hope I never have to revisit them in that context again.
Bargaining. What could I exchange
for you? The silence
after storms? My typing fingers?
Before I could decide, Depression
came puffing up, a poor relation
its suitcase tied together
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
As Jordan fancied himself of Irish decent, I will close with a saying contributed to an Irish proverb. “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.” I am thankful for the memories and thankful for the lessons taught by Jordan while he was alive and even after he has been gone these eight years.