Dealing with Death
As second grade came to a close for my son, I reluctantly realized that amid all the reading, writing and arithmetic, Michael learned a valuable life lesson a few months ago that was not part of the regular curriculum.
One Friday morning, he walked into his classroom and was informed that he was not having his normal gym class. Rather, his class would gather in the auditorium with the principal and counselors to be told some devastating news. The night prior, his assistant teacher had died of a heart attack in her sleep. One day, the children were receiving her warm smiles as she helped them pack their books for dismissal, and the next, they were informed that they would never see her again.
Text messages and e-mails had informed the parents that Ms. P had passed away and that the students would be told of the news in school. As we gathered around the school yard at dismissal that solemn day, nervously awaiting our children with their questions, confusion, and terrible sense of loss, we were struck with the realization that this was a first experience with death for many of them.
I was anxious about Michael’s reaction and sad for this terrible loss to the school community, as well as Ms. P’s family and friends. The time came when the kids barreled out of school, as loud and rambunctious as they were every day. As he handed me his school bag with one hand and reached for my hand with the other, Michael looked into my eyes and without saying a word, I knew that he knew.
We silently walked to the car. As we approached it, he turned to me and said, “Mom, I have something I need to tell you, but I don’t want you to be sad.”
“I know already, baby,” I responded, tears welling in my eyes. “Do you want to talk about it?” I asked as Michael settled into the back seat.
“No, I do not,” he announced, staring out the window.
We drove home in silence. The rest of the day was filled with the usual routine of homework, dinner, and TV, though, whenever our eyes met, we both realized that something had changed.
As I laid in bed that night, I was still unsure whether I should broach the subject any further. Michael was adamant he didn't want to talk about it, but I was sure that he was experiencing feelings of loss and fear. It didn’t take long before I had the opportunity discuss it again.
At breakfast the next morning, Michael picked up his fork to place a piece of waffle in his mouth and briefly hesitated. Without looking up, he said, “Ms. P just became a grandmother a few weeks ago.”
Shocked, I tried to remain calm and replied, “Really? I didn’t know she had a grandchild.” And then he looked up. His body shook and the tears that he was so bravely fighting back streamed down his face.
I held him tight and reassured him that everything was going to be okay. He asked me over and over again through his cries, “Why did she have to die?" I could only respond with, “I don’t know, honey. I don’t know.”
Looking back on that experience just three short months ago, I am struck with the realities from which we so often try to shield our children. I so wish that Ms. P could have continued to teach and influence my child as she had for months prior to her death, but what she inevitably taught him is that death is a part of life and things often happen over which we have no control.
We still talk about Ms. P often.
Sometimes, Michael will bring up something funny that she said in class or something she helped him to understand. And he now knows that even after someone has died, her memory lives on – even with a young, 7 year old whose schoolbag she helped to unpack in the morning.