FIRST DAYS of Grief

Heart Lesson

Every Friday I write a portion of my story of healing from a broken heart. On April 13, 2002 our only child, Jennifer, fell to her death in a hiking accident. See post of Sept. 21, 2012 for the complete story.

I was an 8th grade teacher in a large urban school system, teaching language arts five periods a day. Only a month was left in the school year when Jennifer died in April, 2002. I took most of those remaining days as sick leave and worked full-time the last two or three days to finish up paperwork and pack up my classroom.

Since I used the strategy of seminar (see Tuesday for Teachers post for details) throughout the school year to discuss critical questions and topics, I decided to go back in early May to have a seminar with each of my classes. I felt that my students needed an opportunity to ask me questions and have some closure with me before they left 8th grade and started high school the next year.

I’m glad I have my journal reflections to provide the details of those days since my memory includes only the highlights.

Thursday, May 9, 2002

I went to school today for the last two periods to have a seminar with the kids. My substitute remained in the classroom and helped me arrange desks in two circles during planning period. I had the local TV station’s tape of a reporter’s story of her death and copies of the funeral program.  Fifth period came in quite noisy and loud, but Travis had already grabbed me in the hall, nearly knocking me over with a big hug. No doubt he had spread the word that I was back. As they settled down, I reminded them of the seminar standards – only one person speaks at a time.

First I played the video tape which summarized the events surrounding her death (news of her death made the front page of our city’s newspaper and several TV stations). I then read aloud the editorial written about her life in the Tennessee Tech’s student newspaper. I passed out the funeral programs, and they were

completely silent as they read. I lit a candle to signify that seminar was officially beginning. At first a few timidly asked questions:

  • How did you feel when you found out?
  • How are you handling this?
  • Do you want to be alone sometimes?
  • Was the funeral sad?
  • Did you pick out her clothes?
  • How did she slip?
  • How did you feel when the dirt was on top of the casket?

My students from the inner city were all too familiar with traumatic deaths of family members, and many of the neighborhood students came from homes of poverty, with parents in prison, or a steady diet of family drama. Their questions indicate a curiosity in the details surrounding death, and some were mentally comparing their own experiences with mine.

This class had questions for the entire period; they were serious, respectful, and interested. The next class, the last class of the day, was typically more talkative than all my others, but this day they were more timid, asking similar questions to fifth period. A few different questions asked:

  • Do I think Josh will be a part of our lives?
  • How did we treat him when we saw him the first time?
  • Did I have a seminar to get this off my chest or to be done with it?

At the end of the period I suddenly realized my body was tight from the tension and strain of the last two hours. I had been a little apprehensive before I began, since I’ve learned to expect the unexpected with middle school students.  But I was pleased they handled this serious subject with dignity and respect.

Friday, May 19, 2002

First period had very little to say except for Tony. He read a lovely paragraph he had just written and later a poem he wrote. He had the most questions, which seemed to be agreeable to everyone else.  Second period had questions until the end of class bell:

  • Did I think about suing the park or the ambulance people?
  • When was the last time I saw her?
  • What were the last words we said to each other?
  • Did I wish I had more children?
  • Did I ever think that she would die before I did?
  • Has this brought me closer to God or farther away?
  • What did I do that whole week after her death? I said that sometimes I just sat and replayed the events in my head.

Andrew, whose father killed Andrew’s mother asked, “Do you sometimes think everything is fine and then other times realize that it is not?”

I answered, “Exactly.”

Did I sometimes walk by her room and stop and remember?

After classes I went home and realized it took more out of me than I thought. I took a nap before I packed up to spend the weekend at my brother’s house in West Tennessee. I watered all the plants from the funeral and took one more phone call from my best friend, Emalie. “Did I need any help?”

The gentle rhythm of spring in the country soothed my soul. Long wind chimes moving in the breeze sounded like church bells. I took a nap in the hammock Saturday afternoon and went to church with two of my brothers and their wives on Sunday. Gentle, slow conversations, looking at blooming flowers in this peaceful setting were a blessing.  Wished I could stay another day, but I still had grades to record and a make-up exam to study for my post-doctorate course at Trevecca University.

Counting joy in the blessings of sharing Jennifer’s life with so many.

JoyMartell

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