On Backpacks and Baggage: Life After Educator Loss – Reflections from A First Year Teacher
Categories: Memorialization & Commemoration, Trauma, Bereavement & Grief
I was playing board games with my friends when I got the email that my student from last year passed away. I had to stop and look twice to make sure I was reading right and seeing straight.
Not even two weeks into my first year of teaching and I’ve already been hit by the bowling ball of grief.
This image came to mind when I first started writing this piece:
Yes, the pandemic was happening.
Yes, I would be going in without a clear plan of what teaching will be like.
Yes, it would be hard.
But… but? This? Hard?
My hopeful first year teacher self was thinking that all of this would be okay, that I could push through that hill of grief. If not over, then through. If not through, then under. If not under, then through traveling the circumference of this forsaken hill.
But that hill came with a vengeance.
This is a non-comprehensive list of how grief decided to hit me:
- Trying to find his work but seeing he was removed from the learning management system an hour after we received the email
- Realizing that I don’t even remember his face the one or two times he showed up in Zoom
- His close friends coming to me during homeroom to talk about him
- Hearing the moment of silence announced a week after his passing
- Realizing I never even met him in real life because of COVID-impacted distance learning
- Hearing, right after that moment of silence, an awkward send-off that ended with “rest in peace, wherever you are”
- Laughing with the class right after because wow that was awkward
- Crying again because we realized what preceded that awkwardness
- Realizing that there was no way to create new memories to help me through this one devastating one
- Stumbling across his locker by accident and getting excited with all the fun colors while wondering whose birthday did they decorated for?
- Realizing that the locker was to celebrate his life: this was his locker
- Pouring over the notes and letters from his classmates and feeling every ounce of love that was left stuck on that yellow locker
- Thinking about him during my planning period, unprompted
- Talking about him during SCRR’s Life After Loss table and realizing how much it actually hurt to talk about it
- Unlocking a new fear as an educator and a feeling of helplessness when it comes to supporting my students
- His close friend running up to me to show me a page dedicated to him in the yearbook
- Seeing his mom, first in line, pick up his diploma during graduation
- Feeling her heavy heart from across the field
- Feeling the collective hearts of everyone on that field sink together
On one hand, wow. Too much to feel. All at once and yet it felt like there was nothing there at all. It was so much like a shadow – so solid in its presence and yet it is a nothingness. It felt like a darkness to navigate. I wanted to be able to stop feeling so much at once so that I can feel like I can be present for my students, present for my colleagues, present for all the moments in which I want to be in.
So I looked at grief with my SCRR Life After Loss table mates. Talking to people who had so much more experience than me as educators intimidated me at first, but I realized that they have had more time to look over what grief meant to them. To find the perspectives of people across state lines, across time zones, across ages and professions was an invaluable part of my healing. It made me realize that the communities I wanted to be a part of, especially to process everything that has happened during my year, should be made mindfully with people who were both alike and unlike me. The difference in perspectives made me feel like I had half a dozen mentors at my side.
At our Life After Loss table, we held our grief shared from student deaths and talked about it and slowly, grief turned out to be a backpack. I can unpack it all I want, I can inspect all of its parts, I can talk over what makes it heavy and what I can do to ease the load. But at the end of the day it’s still mine to carry. But unpacking makes it easier. The help makes it easier. The consolidation and the organizing of my backpack helped me realize that it wasn’t as much of a weight to carry as I realized.
The immovable object wasn’t immovable at all. It was always moving with me. So, maybe I just have to keep moving too.