Unfortunately, the walk from the hospital to the school was a short one. It left me little time to consider what I was going to say to my students and how I was going to talk to kids about death. How was I going to tell them that the mother of one of their classmates had just passed away? These sixth graders had shared the pain of their close friend over the months of his mother’s debilitating illness and now were going to have to deal with the terrible and tragic loss
This past week’s twin tragedies, in Boston and Texas, reminded me of how difficult it is for students to cope with tragedy and how challenging it is for teachers to know what to say to students when disaster strikes. The same uncertainty that plagued me that day many years ago challenged teachers across America as they sought to do the right thing. Teachers frequently have as little time as I did to prepare themselves to face their student’s tear-streaked faces. How should a teacher respond and help students dealing with disaster?
My first thought was that I am simply not prepared for all this. I was sure that the school would call in mental health professionals who were trained in crisis counseling and who could help the students through this difficult time. Each student’s pastor, priest or rabbi could speak with their respective congregants to console and guide them. Their parents would be there once they got home and would find soothing words that would ease their sense of mourning. So I, their teacher, should just be strong. I should ignore the storm of emotions buffeting my soul and save my crying for after the bell had rung. After all, I teach math and science; grief counseling is not my responsibility.
“But,” I asked myself, “is it really true?” It occurred to me that a teacher is no less than the student’s window to the world. Even though the professionals would all do their jobs well, it was going to be me that the students would look to, to do what I had done all year: teach them how to understand the world around them. Pain, suffering, grief and loss are all part of that world and I must help them understand this part of their lives as well.
So, I did the best I could. I walked into the classroom and grieved with the students. I shared with them my feelings, my fears, and my reasons for hope. I explained to them the cycle of life, my strategies for dealing with loss, and we discussed how one deals with life’s defeats, both large and small. We all talked for a long time, focusing not only on the loss but also on how we were going to help the young boy, their classmate, who would now go through life without his beloved mother. We mourned together today, but we also planned what we were going to do tomorrow.
When the bell rang to signal the end of the day, I felt that for at least that day, I had been a good teacher. I had provided a model of behavior which they could call upon to help weather the storms that are part and parcel of life itself and I learned something about how to talk to kids about death. On that tragic day, I had made a difference.