I woke up on Monday, February 25th knowing that part of my day would involve some grief work. I had received a call the night before informing me that a sibling of one of my students had died, so I was asked to check in on some staff and I planned to check in on my student and his friends. Instead, I spent the day informing groups of staff and students that L had died the previous Friday. Shortly after 8:00 I was called into the conference room and informed of her death by my principal and her parents. Over and over again I shared the information or listened as it was shared. After the third or fourth group of staff came in to hear the news, I stopped crying as it was delivered. I became numb and it was just information that I was sharing, nothing more. I put on my crisis response hat and offered support to staff. When we told L’s class, I gave hugs and sat with her inconsolable friends. I told them I was sad and would miss her, too. After school, I drove to Walmart and bought the supplies I needed for the appetizer I was supposed to make for Tuesday’s staff luncheon. As I wandered through the aisles, I was struck by how completely absurd it was that despite what had been the furthest thing from an ordinary day, I was still performing a task as ordinary as grocery shopping. This is what my young adult grief looks like.
On Tuesday, February 26th I drove to school and felt myself transform into zombie. I tucked my feelings away as I prepared to participate in L’s classmates’ morning meeting. I needed to be there for them as they had more questions and began to truly process the reality of her death. I moved through the day in a bit of a fog, supporting students who needed to cry or talk about her or simply needed a break from the heavy atmosphere in a classroom that suddenly felt empty. I taught a student about what it means when something is bittersweet and we talked about how we were both feeling some bittersweet things. I tried to prepare for our very first Mash Up, an event where students in grades K-5 get assigned to new homerooms with new teachers so that they can meet new people and feel more connected to school. My intention had been to finish preparing on Monday, but my day had unexpectedly been filled with tragedy. I felt rushed and under-prepared as we moved into our Mash Up. I left school that day feeling completely drained emotionally and guilty for not making sure the event had lived up to my vision. This is what my young adult grief looks like.
On Wednesday,February 27th I broke down. I got to school and discovered I had missed a committee meeting the night before (totally not a big deal in reality), and that on top of feeling guilty about the Mash Up put me over the edge. I couldn’t seem to stop crying. I told a few of my coworkers that I felt like a f@$% up because I had completely forgotten about the meeting and couldn’t do it all.
As the school counselor, I am looked at as a leader and while I know people were being gentle with me, I wasn’t as good at being gentle with myself. With all my grief experience, I should have been able to handle this, right? Staff members had commented that they were lucky to have me with my expertise, so I felt that I was letting them down. I needed time to hide and grieve, just like everyone else. I canceled my lessons for the day, but continued to chat with students who needed a safe place to go and had a powerful moment with a student as I explained what grief is. I had asked her if anyone had told her what is was that she was feeling, and then gave her the word- grief. She instantly connected with it and I’ve been holding onto that moment ever since. This is what my young adult grief looks like.
On Thursday, February 28th I resumed my normal schedule. I went back to teaching classes, including L’s class. I ditched my original plans for lessons on coping skills and decided that we would play games instead. I needed to find some joy again. We were still meeting standards by working on teamwork, taking turns, and problem solving, and I got the break I very much needed. I still had students coming to see me for regular breaks and we talked about what they needed to get through the day. I felt more settled, although I laughed at the irony of our spirit day for Dr. Seuss- wear a color that matches your mood. If I was being honest with everyone, I would have come in black and gray and brown. I certainly didn’t feel like a rainbow. After school I attended the visitation of my student’s brother and learned that one of my former student’s mom had died the day before. I suddenly felt like I was wearing a very heavy coat made out of grief. I was so ready for February to be over. For the shortest month of the year, it felt like the longest. I was just going through the motions at this point, a shell of a person. This is what my young adult grief looks like.
On Friday, March 1st I made it all the way until the exit that was seven miles from mine before I cried on my way to work. Progress! The Dr. Seuss theme day was dress like your dream job, so I showed up in an avocado costume. I just needed to feel light again. The students in L’s class learned that her funeral would take place on Monday, so emotions kicked up again. It became real again. I continued to feel like a zombie at work. It was almost like I could feel myself getting more zombie-like the closer I got to work. I was doing what I needed to do in order to survive and just get through it. My mantra had become “one day at a time” and that’s all I could offer. I talked a few of my students who were struggling the most through the weekend and asked them what things they could do to get through. I got home that night and decided that I needed to get out of here- away from the cold and the snow and the dreariness. I asked my cousin if she wanted to go someplace warm during my spring break because my soul needs the ocean and sand and sun. I need to shrug off that heavy grief coat. Pretty quickly it seemed like the ocean and sunshine were a stretch- plane tickets are expensive this close to the event. So then I decided that when I see my best friend next weekend I should get a tattoo. I’ve been planning on one for a looonnnngggg time, but I decided it was finally time to act. And then I realized that I want to do something “risky” because I want to feel something. I had spent the entire week feeling like a zombie and so the idea of doing something that would get my heart pounding gave me life. So I’m slowing down and waiting until this passes before I make any major decisions. Maybe I’ll dye my hair or buy a funky pair of glasses instead. This is what my young adult grief looks like.
On Saturday, March 2nd I spent most of my day napping. I didn’t want to think about L and I didn’t have plans until the evening. It was too hard to spend the entire day thinking and feeling, so I slept. I went out with some of my coworkers and grabbed dinner and saw a basketball game. I was surrounded by people I care about, but I still felt heavy. I don’t think my heart completely filled up on the joy that was offered that night. This is what my young adult grief looks like.
Today, Sunday, March 3rd, I met up with my parents and one of my brothers for breakfast. I needed to see them. My family anchors me. And yet there’s no way that they completely understand what I’m going through right now. How do I explain what it feels like to be realizing one of my worst fears? When I received the call about my student’s brother a week ago, I had the thought of “what would I do if this were my student?” Unfortunately I didn’t have to wait too long to figure that out.
I feel anonymous in my grief, like I can’t really talk about it because she was my student and not my child. I want to protect her family from my pain because I tell myself that my grief is different from theirs, that maybe I don’t have the right to grieve the way that they are or the way her classroom teacher is. I work with grief a lot and I’m always telling the people I work with that all grief is valid and that no one type of grief is “harder” than another, but that’s not the way I feel right now. I feel like I have to keep silent about how much my heart is breaking. When I’m out in public, I feel like I’m always about 5 seconds away from crying. There’s an article circulating on Facebook right now about how everyone is grieving and how we should go easy. Ever since Monday I’ve been feeling that. I look around me with a fresh perspective and ache for what I have lost and for what the people around me have lost.
My biggest challenge today was wondering what I should wear to the funeral tomorrow. That seems so silly now- does my outfit really matter? But I didn’t really want to wear something I already own because I know that everytime I put it on I’ll think about it. Clothes hold memories for me. And if I bought something new, I didn’t necessarily want to buy something I loved because I wondered if I’d be afraid to wear it again. As I get closer to tomorrow, my stomach starts to flip flop. I’m reminded of the butterflies throwing up in my stomach, as one of my students described her feelings earlier this week. The idea of getting ready for school tomorrow makes me want to vomit and zone out all at the same time. This is what my young adult grief looks like.
My grief is complicated and messy and hard. It leaves me unable to breathe and makes me want to cry and scream and tune everything out. I’m taking things one day at a time because that’s all I can do. I know that some days will feel great and others will feel hellish. It’s not fair that an 8-year-old had to die. It’s not fair that so many people are piecing themselves together as we try to figure out which way is up and which way is down. The good news is that we have each other. My students may need me, but I need them just as much. It feels less lonely to grieve together. We can remember and empathize in ways that people outside our little bubble can’t. We are forever bonded by this experience, for better or for worse. This is what my young adult grief looks like.