I want to give personal advice to my student
On this snowy morning, clusters of sophomores spill out into the hallway, ready to board the school van that’s taking them to the funeral. My school’s Administration arranged that friends of Ella could miss class to attend her father’s funeral. Cancer took his life swiftly and efficiently, hardly giving him a chance to fight back. Seeing the composed packs of teenaged girls reminds me what I like most about girls this age- they’re fiercely loyal to their friends in times of crisis. The minute Ella’s friends knew the funeral arrangements, they drew up a petition requesting that they be excused from school so they could support Ella at the church. No one challenged their petition; in fact, teachers volunteered to chaperone the girls on the van and during the service. My schedule doesn’t allow me to go, but I feel like I’m there already. I guess because I’ve done it before. I buried my mother at her age. I know the shock, the pain, the loneliness, the sad burden she now carries.
The girls have left and I have class in 20 minutes, but the only thing I want to do is give Ella advice, to offer some words that could hold her up when she’s finding herself gripped by grief or worse, when she’s stalked by it. Stalking grief will loom constantly in the shadows, allowing only some light into her life. It can be slow, quiet torture, hardly noticed in our world.
I couldn’t let her walk with grief by herself, not when I had already made the journey. I wanted to be her Virgil, guiding her through the hellish journey that presents way more twists and turns than Dante’s Inferno. There were times that my grief hobbled me, leaving me feeling like roadkill. I sure would have liked some guidance.
It’s such a lofty thing to do — advise people on how to handle grief. Isn’t it arrogant to tell people how they should feel or how they should handle tragedy? But here I am, writing a letter to a girl, who at this moment, I imagine, is kneeling before her father, saying a goodbye prayer.
Here’s what I want Ella to know.
I wish I were writing this letter to you about a silly thing like how to improve your thesis statement, but right now you are celebrating your father’s life and the love he will always have for you. I find myself sitting here feeling compelled to offer you some thoughts on the loss of your dad. I know you to be a strong girl who has the grit to persevere, so you may not find this letter very helpful. And that’s fine. At the very least, I hope it conveys my sincere condolences to you and your family and shows you that I care very much about how you’re feeling. That’s important to know- that I and everyone who surrounds you truly care about your feelings. We want to help you through this time. Friends and even some adults are gifts that are here for you to rely on. Your friends will hold you up in any way they can. And although they know you best and will give you happiness when you’re sad, don’t be discouraged if you find that friends can’t fully understand the pain you’re going through. It’s like asking them to describe a food they’ve never tasted. The good news is they want to help you and want to make you happy, and of course, they will in their own ways.
If it seems like no one mentions or remembers your loss, it’s only because they don’t know how to bring it up. They’re thinking of you and all that you’ve been through. Talk about your dad a lot and mention him whenever you want- your friends are always willing to hear about him because he’s a part of you. When your friends talk about their parents, you can too. Tell funny stories about your dad, laugh when you remember his embarrassing jokes and the silly things he said to you and your brother. He’d want you to do that.
Sometimes you may feel like you’re on a different path than your friends. Remember that paths lead us to somewhere else. They’re not meant for long-term travel. Trust that bigger, colorful avenues and scenic roads await you.
Find a listener. Get close to a person who will listen as you talk about your feelings you have at that moment or the feelings you had in the past, like when your dad made a surprise appearance at your soccer game. Tell your story fully and completely so you don’t get stuck in it. Tell about your sufferings and your joys and all the moments that were hard or surreal or precious. Tell your dad’s story too. It’s healing. As an English teacher, I can’t emphasize enough how important your story is- and your story deserves to be heard.
When new acquaintances come into your life, you may feel like telling people about your loss. That’s normal.
I know I sound like a teacher when I say that you will heal from this crushing sadness. There may be days when you’re too sad to even swallow, but you’ll also have great days that make you feel complete and full and joyous. Both are valuable. You’ve learned too early that life has extremes, some of them define us and our lives. Your dad would want you to be defined by your accomplishments, the love you give and receive, your courage, and your happiness.