Our lives took an unexpected turn last week when we found out one of my older son’s teachers had passed away suddenly on Saturday night. The boys are in a new school this year, and while they knew a few people when they started, it has been an adjustment for them both academically and socially. This teacher in particular seemed to understand CEO well, and had just reached out to him a few days earlier, asking him to join the boys’ book group.
He was excited when he came home that afternoon- she had stopped him after class and asked why he wasn’t signed up. He shrugged, and then she said she knew he was a strong reader and would be able to finish the book in less than a week… and did he know that anyone who attended got a hot fudge sundae?
When we told him the news Sunday afternoon, he was sad, and shocked. I asked later that evening what he was thinking, and he said, “I can’t believe she’s gone… She really encouraged me.”
Monday morning the head of school explained they had spoken to all of the students together first thing. They’d discussed how people handle grieving differently, and compared it to the movie Inside Out. Just as in the movie there are multiple emotions standing next to each other, people handle grieving differently. Not everyone will cry at the same time. And when one person is feeling really sad, another might have a moment where they remember something and smile. This doesn’t mean one person is more upset than another, or taking the situation more seriously- everyone is processing grief differently.
Wednesday evening the memorial service was held at the school. The line was out the door when we arrived. The boys were somber, uncertain what to expect. They’d put effort into getting dressed, digging out their dress shoes and belts, making sure they tucked in their shirts and looked sharp. Once we were finally inside, CEO went to sit with his classmates, while the younger boy and I found seats a few rows behind them. I made sure they each had tissues in their pockets, because there was no telling how much crying there would be. Before we had left I explained to them that I often tear up when I see other people crying, regardless of how sad I actually felt. The younger boy said, “I do that, too! I can’t help it. But don’t worry, I’ll be OK. Thanks for the tissue.”
At the service, many people spoke about the impact this teacher had had on their lives, as part of their family, a colleague, a lifelong friend. She loved to share books with everyone, and was passionate about a summer camp she had helped save. Towards the end some of the students shared how sad they were, how she had inspired them, and how they wished they could do over the last few days and bring her back. Finally, they concluded the service first with a camp song the students were invited up to sing together, and then a quote from Harry Potter Book VII, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:
“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love. By returning, you may ensure that fewer souls are maimed, fewer families are torn apart. If that seems to you a worthy goal, then we say good-bye for the present.”
Harry nodded and sighed. Leaving this place would not be nearly as hard as walking into the forest had been, but it was warm and light and peaceful here, and he knew that he was heading back to pain and the fear of more loss. He stood up, and Dumbledore did the same, and they looked for a long moment into each other’s faces.
“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
Dumbldore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
From Chapter 35, King’s Cross, pages 722-723
The idea of what happens in our heads also being real resonates with me. It facilitates the discussion with the boys as to how people live on with us after they’re gone, and lessens the finality of saying goodbye. Final goodbyes are something I still have a hard time wrapping my head around.
After the service, the students began the process of letting go. They were excited to learn tons of pizza had been donated, and there was a table full of cookies and full-sized Halloween candy- the candy their teacher had bought to hand out at her house. At first they took their plates and sat quietly with their friends in the back of the gym. Then, while I was chatting with other parents, I heard a familiar sound:
I turned and saw a group of boys sitting on the floor, flipping their water bottles, cheering each other on. Of course. Multiple emotions, all present at once. And sometimes, it’s humor that helps heal the most.