Category Archives: bereavement
Sunday morning our neighbor, a high school history teacher, wheeled his bicycle into the street and pedaled away for his customary ride. He never came home again. About an hour later, two police cars and a police motorcycle arrived, bringing the teacher’s bicycle, his helmet—and bad news. Throughout the day we gathered bits and pieces of information from another neighbor. No, the teacher hadn’t been struck by a car. Apparently he had a stroke or a heart attack, and toppled from his bike. Rushed by ambulance to a local hospital, he hovered between life and death for several hours. By nightfall, he was dead. What started out to be an exciting summer festival of rest, relaxation and recuperation for a weary educator turned into a season of mourning for his wife and two grown children.
Miss M, my teaching assistant, disappeared after lunch yesterday. She is conscientious and thoughtful and superb with the kids, so I was puzzled and disappointed by her apparent irresponsibility. She could have at least let me know that she’d be gone for the rest of the day.
My disappointment turned into smoldering resentment as the afternoon progressed and the 6th-graders became more and more surly and unruly. It was obvious that they, too, missed Miss M—but they are not articulate, so they acted out.
It wasn’t until after the students had been escorted to the buses that I learned that Miss M had rushed home at lunchtime after someone had spotted her dog in distress and called her to come quickly.
She was too late. By the time she got home, her beloved pet was dead.
Today Miss M was back in my classroom, a shadow of her usual exuberant self. She was red-eyed and sniffling, but the same children who were surly and unruly yesterday were gentle and solicitous today.
“What happened to your dog?” one student asked.
“We left him on the deck and he decided to jump,” said Miss M, “but his leash was too short and he broke his neck.”
“Was he a good dog?”
“He was a very good dog,” Miss M said, “a very, very good dog.” Her voice faltered as she wiped away tears.
Several of the children told Miss M how they had lost beloved pets to various tragedies.
As they spoke, an ancient proverb seemed to spring to life: “Heaviness in the heart of man maketh it stoop: but a good word maketh it glad” (Proverbs 12:25, KJV).
By sharing their stories of loss and grief—which are, mysteriously, “good words”— healing began, both for the children and for Miss M.
The hearts of children of poverty, the children with whom I work, stoop with heaviness. Unimaginable things, unspeakable things, happen in their homes and to their families every day.
That’s why it’s so essential for me to be lavish in giving out good words. I want to be a teacher who makes heavy hearts glad.
After a week-long bereavement leave, I returned to my classroom Monday. My sixth-graders wouldn’t stop chattering, no matter how many times I reprimanded them. Finally in exasperation I said, “What’s the matter with you?”
M-Boy, the chattiest one of all, replied, “Oh, we’re just so happy to see you that we can’t stop talking.”
A couple of hours later, when I greeted the seventh-graders at the door, J-Boy wrapped his arms around me and mimicked a kiss.
It’s nice to be missed.
you crashed to the floor, broken
and forever stilled.
© 2009 by Magical Mystical Teacher
The deputy coroner told me that your neighbor had borrowed a toaster from you, and wanted to return it. He assumed you were home because your car was in the driveway. When you didn’t respond to his repeated knocking, he called law enforcement. Sheriff’s deputies arrived to perform a welfare check. When you did not answer the door, they forcibly entered your house and found you fully clothed, facedown on the living room floor. You had been dead for some time.
I remember your being facedown on another floor many years ago. It was in the spare bedroom of our grandparents’ house on the prairie. I was 4, you were 2, and our sister hadn’t been born yet.
It was a cloudy, sultry afternoon, the kind of weather that precedes a thunderstorm. Distant lightning flickered in the sky as Mom tucked us in bed for a nap. We hadn’t been lying there long, when the heavens opened up and a deluge of biblical proportions poured from the heavens. Lightning that had been miles away only minutes before, now flashed directly overhead. Thunder shook the little white clapboard house like a terrier shaking a rat.
You jumped from the bed, terrified, and started screaming, “Mommy! Mommy!” But rain and hail slammed against the little house and thunder roared so ferociously that she couldn’t hear you. You tried to crawl under the bed, but there wasn’t enough room, so you lay facedown on the bare wood floor, sobbing and crying out, “Mommy! Mommy!”
Protectively, I laid myself down on top of you and whispered in your ear, “It’s all right, it’s all right”—but I doubt you heard me over the roar of the rain and hail pummeling the tin roof. I stayed on top of you until the storm subsided, and I was sure that you were safe.
This morning I read these words from an ancient Hebrew poem: “For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 90:11, RSV). Is it too outlandish to imagine an angel spread protectively over you in your final moments as you lay facedown on the floor? Perhaps you even heard a gentle whisper: “It’s all right, it’s all right.”
I’m in a different sort of classroom this week, the classroom of bereavement. There are no rules here. Anything goes. The student may do pretty much as he or she pleases, so it pleases me to write about my brother’s death, and to try to make some sense out of what appears to have been a completely senseless act.
My sister was the first to break the news to me. She said that her son had received a phone call from one of his cousins, saying that her father was dead; my nephew then passed the news along to his mother. When she told me, I said, “What if it wasn’t J? What if it was some homeless person and J paid the coroner to keep quiet? What if this is all a scam so he can assume a new identity?”
If you knew our brother, you’d know that the scenario I imagined was not at all farfetched. Indeed, when I talked to the deputy coroner this morning, he told me that a number of people had called his office, concerned that J had faked his death.
But as I listened to the deputy coroner’s story unfold, I became more convinced that it was the truth—especially when I heard that J’s body had been positively identified by his ex-wife’s current husband, a law-enforcement officer.
There is so much more that I want to know, so many questions that I’d like to ask my brother: Did you really kill yourself, as the coroner has ruled, or did you underestimate the power of the two drugs you took at the same time, one an anti-depressant, the other an antihistamine? You tried, dramatically and unsuccessfully, to kill yourself on two separate occasions many years ago, once by slitting your wrists, and once by cutting your throat, so why “go gentle into that good night” with a mere overdose of drugs?
My brother will never answer my questions, of course. But as every good teacher knows, asking questions does not necessarily presuppose that there are easy (or any) answers. Teachers pose questions to stimulate thought. In fact, when my students don’t know the answer to a question I’ve asked, I don’t permit them to shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t know.” Instead, I invite them to probe deeper by saying, “I’m not sure, but I think….”
I’m not sure about so many issues surrounding my brother’s death, but I think that if I keep listening to the Spirit of truth, one day I will see some good come out of this tragedy.