Today we went to the funeral and wake of an Irish Catholic buddy of my husband. He had cancer for two years and we were lucky enough to be there at his bedside with his family and other friends when he passed. Grim? Maybe. Yucky. Not at all. I’ve become a firm believer in being there as people die. Being able to say goodbye and not have regrets.
When I was 17 years old my dad died in a very unexpected accident at work. He had been retired from the Coast Guard for a year and a half at that point (that’s his retirement photo). Right after retirement he had worked for the City for a year, but had gone back to work for the base as a civilian employee. I think he got a kick out of being able to keep his beard and slightly shaggy, curly hair while working for the military. His little rebellion.
On the day he died, a steam pipe under one of the fuel tanks (the great big ones that hold the fuel for airplanes) was leaking. He was a mechanic and his job was to fix things of that sort at the fuel farm. His partner was out of town. He went alone. He tried to use what’s known as a ‘cheater bar’ to close off the leaking pipe but things broke open and he was trapped on the wrong side of the steam. His body was badly damaged and we were not allowed to see it.
I’ve told this story many times over the years to many, many students. How it took me several years to get used to Dad being gone – because we were used to him being gone with the military so it felt like he was just deployed again. How it was difficult to deal with the left-over feelings of anger, frustration and aggravation that are part of a teenage relationship with a parent. Why it is important to tell those you love what you are feeling and thinking so you won’t have the regrets that I did when I lost my father. Students appreciate personal experience. I have found they especially liked the stories of when I was in high school. (In part because I graduated from the high school at which – a decade later – I became a teacher.)
I’ve also talked with them about how not too long after my dad’s death, I left for college and my whole world changed. I went a continent away from everything I knew and after a rocky start began my studies as a developmental psychologist. And while I was there I lost my great-grandmother, one of my brother’s closest friends, and then my best friend and her baby. This was a lot of unexpected, sudden grief to process and I really didn’t know how to do so.
After college, I worked for several years as a substance abuse counselor. The training for that included a course called Alcohol, Suicide and Grief. That was where I first encountered Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief and finally began to understand and process my own reactions. I did a few rounds of therapy in and after college as well. It took me awhile, but eventually I began to understand what I was experiencing and why, which helped me to heal. I lost a few other people, not as close, but was able to attend their funerals, see them in their caskets and say goodbye. It helped. That also made healing progress.
So, when I started teaching high school, a few years later, grief was one of the topics that was heartfelt for me. Two of the courses I taught at the high school were Health and Psychology. I also taught English and Drama at various points. Grief was on the curriculum for the first two, but not the last two. Yet, because of the nature of literature and the theatre, it came up. And I’ve never been shy of letting a meaningful conversation develop in my classroom.
One of the things my students and I talked about the most over the years that I taught is the rituals their families have when someone dies. Because those are the important skills that help people to cope when a death occurs. This is something I had to figure out for myself from thousands of miles away in three out of the four cases I had experienced thus far. I had missed out on the memorial services, the giving of flowers and food to the families, the stopping by and having time to chat about what the person had meant to me for everyone but my dad. It all happened while I was somewhere else.
Many of my students had experienced death. It’s a fishing community. The sea is not kind. Cancer was also a huge topic in the health classes. Everyone in class either had a family member or friend who had experience with cancer. Some were cancer survivors. Many were not. We cheered about the former, talked cautiously about the latter. They asked for, and I gave them, a unit on cancer. I never did a unit specifically on grief. I didn’t have to. It came up in all of my classes.
(There’s no way, for example to get through the Sophomore English curriculum without discussing the nature of death and grief!! MacBeth, The Old Man and the Sea, Lord of the Flies… I mused aloud at an English department meeting once that it was no surprise that sophomores were at the highest risk for suicide. Apparently, that isn’t funny.)
When death finally did show up as a topic though, I’d stop teaching the lesson of the day and let the students talk. Then I’d ask others to describe cultural or family traditions. What do you do? What helps? Someone would always get uncomfortable and ask – “why are we talking about this?” I’d always say “It’s a life skill. Someday you’re going to experience it. Don’t you want some ideas before it happens?” Memorial services were a common theme. A few people mentioned open caskets – most found that gross. That’s when I usually told my story and explained how it can help to say goodbye to the body. I’d explain the five stages of grief, adding that they didn’t have to happen in order and people can revisit then months and years later during significant moments. I gave examples of those experiences as well. Not having my Dad give me away at my wedding was something they understood.
It’s important with teenagers though to gauge the level of discussion and know when to move on. In some classes this was 2-3 minutes, in others half an hour. Then, it was back to the lesson of the day. It would come up again. It always did. I also knew to keep an eye on those students who got really quiet and didn’t contribute. Because those were the people who I needed to check in with after class or in the halls – “You okay? Did today’s discussion upset you? Do you want to talk to one of the counselors?” Many times the ones who talk are already doing a good job of dealing with their grief. As I know well, it is those of us who say nothing and hold it all inside that are not coping very well.
For me then, learning to share my personal stories became my ritual. It isn’t just about grief either. Every topic that I taught over 12-13 years at the high school and 11 years with the college has stories that I have developed to help students relate to what they are studying ( there was some overlap, all told those years teaching were August 1998-December 2016). That is what this blog is for – my personal ritual for having a daily purpose. Now that I am “retired”, (the state doesn’t call it disability – they call it medical retirement), I find that I still need to share these stories. Thus I am trying out the blog adventure. I’m still sharing my thoughts and personal stories as a way to make things accessible. I know that it helps me to cope because I’ve spent years telling the stories and connecting them to my studies. It helps me to process things in my own way. Maybe it will help you as much as it helps me.