“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I learned years ago in my classroom that I will never know what my students are going through until I am willing to listen to them share. I also learned that when I listen every student has a story.
Teddy Roosevelt once said — “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
I know that is true for my students because it was true for me when I was in school.
While preparing for the new year, a Liberty High School counselor shared with me that he had placed a student in my classroom whose father had recently died of a brain aneurysm. Tears welled in my eyes because my own father died a year earlier. I was 24 at the time and knew that I would have been lost if I had been a teenager when he passed.
Five percent of children experience the loss of a parent before their eighteenth birthday. The trauma and uncertainty that comes from this tragic loss can have a significant impact.
That day, I stood at my door greeting my students like any day as they walked into my room for World History. I asked them to introduce themselves. Erin told me her name, and I smiled and welcomed her. I treated her like anyone else. When the opportunity presented itself, I planned to listen and share my own experience with her. Right now, Erin needed to be a regular kid. She managed to hide her sadness in those first few weeks. She had a big smile, very sweet and kind. She quickly made friends. She and a friend Austin would chat up with each other before and after class, and maybe even during. The two became close friends. Austin was very caring and a great sense of humor. Erin’s smile was as infectious as her laughter. The two of them were a bright spot in my day.
Before long, Erin shared that her dad had been a superintendent of a school district but had died of a brain aneurysm. I can remember where I was standing in the room. I tried not to cry as she told me. She was remarkably brave as she spoke about his passing. Like anyone in her situation, she appeared hurt, confused and sad. He had been her world.
I listened attentively and asked her gentle questions, such as “What was he like?” Erin continued to talk and she shared more than I asked. I listened, nodded, maintained eye contact.
Finally, I said, “Erin, I lost my dad a year ago. I wish I could tell you it gets better; I wish I could tell you the hurt, and the emptiness gets better, but I don’t know. You will always miss him. I am not sure if it ever gets better. Some days are better than others. I hold on to the memories I have, and I like sharing them with others.”
We hugged, and we cried a little. She said, “I love talking about my dad, too.” I thanked her for sharing as she got up and left with Austin. I was so thankful she had been in my class.
As I watched Erin and Austin leave, I prayed I would have the right words to support her and that our connection would not be lost. I also wanted to talk more about her and not about our shared tragedy. I have found that when someone passes in your life, and someone else has a similar experience, soon that is all they talk about. As much as I love talking about my dad, I wanted Erin to experience as typical of a sophomore year as she could. When she needed to talk I would let her talk about her life — her current moments of happiness, frustrations, hopes & dreams, etc..
That year Erin worked hard; she was full of life and sadness all at the same time. She wanted to prove herself to others and herself. I suspect she wanted to make her dad proud, too, and I am sure she did. I was proud of her. She cared for others around her, and she made friends quickly. She listened to those who were hurting and encouraged them. At every opportunity, I helped her. I also didn’t lower my expectations and she never let me down. She had every right to be angry and mad, but if she was she managed it. She could have pushed others away and some days she did. Time and time again I saw her laughing and listening to friends, helping them and encouraging them. She was honoring her dad. She was stronger then she believed.
When things were dark, I watched Erin lean into Austin and other friends. I watched Austin support her. I was learning from them both that helping others helps us to heal both spiritually and emotionally. Acts of deliberate selflessness will help to improve the constant hurt we’re feeling. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but caring and encouraging others helps us to show the legacy our departed loved ones left. Grief does not stop but it does change. Erin showed others how much she cared and reinforced what I learned when my own father died.
As adults, we often do not know what to say to someone grieving. I would say just be there. Don’t try to point out to us stars in the darkness.
I share some convictions Robert Fulghum once pointed out:
“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death”.— Robert Fulghum
“Laughter is the only cure for grief” — maybe that’s why I enjoy telling stories about my dad; those joyful stories about him make me laugh.
With something to think about
your friend, Chris.
See this article from National Public Radio, NPR, for more information about children who have lost a parent before age 18. https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2013/10/15/234737083/successful-children-who-lost-a-parent-why-are-there-so-many-of-them