Grieving while Teaching
My blog has been put on the back burner, but not forgotten. This year, it is all I can do to just make it through the days, and the days are A LOT. There is preparing and teaching, working with my student teacher, completing my work for the graduate course in my PhD program, my family, not to mention keeping up with healthy life habits and so on.
I had been lucky in my life to not experience too much grief until December of 2021, when my father died. The pain I felt was unlike anything I have ever felt. It was searing, painful, brutal, huge. My tears were endless, my heart physically ached. Almost 5 months later, it feels a little duller – but by no means is it gone. I realize that it will, in fact, always be present, surging at unexpected moments, taking over when I think everything is fine.
In school, it has been interesting to deal with my grief. Like most teachers, I have gotten pretty good at compartmentalizing my life. Home things stay in one section so that I can focus on school. When I came back to school after my dad’s death, the sadness was such a part of me that I found I couldn’t separate it in the same way I had separated my emotions in the past. I couldn’t even imagine having to face my students and engage in the day to day of school. I knew that I had adults I could rely on if I needed to cry, get a hug, or take a break, and that helped. I thought I didn’t want to talk about my dad, but it turned out that’s exactly what I did want and what was helpful for me.
I decided to be upfront with my students, who are in 7th and 8th grade. They knew that my dad was sick, because I had told them. A lot of them knew that he had died, since I asked some of my colleagues who covered my classes to tell them. At the beginning of each class, I told them that, as they knew, my dad had been sick all fall, and that he died on December 18. I decided not to use the term “passed away” because as beginner English learners, that might not be a familiar term, and in any case, I prefer to say it plainly as well. I worried about how they would take it, but I shouldn’t have. They looked sad for me, and some even said “Sorry.” And then, in typical middle school fashion, they moved on to asking me about a completely different topic. I let my more advanced English learners know that I was sad, and that my father and I were very close, and I gave them a few minutes to ask questions if they wanted to. I can’t remember what they asked, but I felt good about starting class by acknowledging and normalizing my grief. Once that was out of the way, I could move on with the business of teaching and being present for my students.
Our society does not allow for the time or space needed to grieve. In New England’s protestant-influenced society, grief is best expressed in private, and publicly people are expected to “get over it” quickly. In my district, we are allowed 4 bereavement days. 4 days? It will take me a lifetime to work through this deep grief.
My school is very close to the cemetery where my father is buried in his plain pine coffin that is biodegradable (a natural burial). It is a beautiful, park-like place with paths, woods, natural stone headstones, and hills. I can walk there in 6 minutes, and once in a while during my prep period, I go visit. It feels comforting that my dad is close by. His birthday was 2 days ago; the grass is starting to grow on the earth that is over him, and my family and I spread flowers around his grave.
Though I know that compartmentalizing is essential for me to do my job, I have also learned that sometimes, I can’t keep my two worlds completely apart, and that is also okay. It's also okay to rely on my friends and colleagues for support. It's okay to allow my students to see a more authentic me. When it comes to grief, I am learning, it's all okay.
5/5/2022 12:13:55 pm
It's hard, isn't it, to keep the two worlds separate. Some days are easier than others. I think your students are lucky to have you, Alicia, to watch you work through this time of incredible sadness where I'm sure you think, 'I can't go on. I must go on. I go on.' You have taught them so many things and now you are teaching them how to deal with loss.
5/9/2022 04:58:16 pm
Thank you, Mary!
6/4/2022 09:58:10 am
You describe the experience of grief so poignantly, my friend. And you're right... at some point, the ache becomes less noticeable, except when it hits you broadside. I hope I can encourage you that in time, the grief becomes tempered with loving memories, and the waves become easier to ride. So much love to you <3
7/12/2022 04:05:57 pm
Aw. Thank you, I feel the love!
10/19/2022 09:39:22 am
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