“Tragedy struck the school that second semester as one of my first semester students was killed in a car accident one weekend near her home. She was not a regular in the lunch club, but the core members had been close friends with her. On the Monday morning before classes started, very distraught and tearful students from the club came to my door and enveloped me in a group hug. For the second time in my career I found myself feeling helpless in the midst of abject misery. All I could do was hug them and be there. This time I felt the grief too, because the student who died, Jennifer, had been a favourite of mine. As I navigated my way through this whirlwind of grief, I felt a sense of peace in that my experience before had taught me that just being present and available to others in grief was really all I could do. Grieving is a process that takes time, and no words –– no matter how well intentioned –– can fix it or make it go away.”
Excerpt From: John Fioravanti. “A Personal Journey to the Heart of Teaching.”
I was reminded of this incident this past weekend when I read a post on Facebook from a former student who is now teaching high school in the States. For the fourth time in her career, she lost a student from one of her classes. For a teacher who cares for her or his students, the sudden death of a student is a painful fact of life. For the families of these students the grief can be debilitating. How does one make sense of a disaster like this one? I am also reminded of the outpouring of anger and grief of families of the crew and passengers aboard the Malaysian airliner that disappeared a month ago. These are losses that are unexpected and horrifyingly final.
As a teenager and young man I had a deep-seated desire to help people. I also had a naïve notion that just about any kind of problem can be fixed. When faced with the devastating grief after the loss of a loved one or a good friend, I discovered that grief cannot be fixed. Grief is to be born for as long as it takes a person to move on with their lives. So, time fixes grief? Not in my experience.
Grief impacts people in different ways and some seem to be able to overcome the acute sadness more quickly than others. Some do this by denial – they refuse to deal with it and dismiss it. Experts in the field of psychology will suggest that a grievous loss can’t be dismissed like that without serious consequences in the future. Grief must be faced. This can be quite overwhelming and that’s where friends and associates can help. Strong support will not erase the emotional pain, but it can make the trauma bearable.
Earlier I said that time can’t fix grief, and I stand by that. Does this mean that intense grief precludes the possibility of happiness in the person’s life? I don’t profess to understand the process of grieving, but I believe that as a person deals with their grief in a healthy, honest way, they will come to accept the loss and then embrace the positive memories and the benefits the deceased person bestowed upon their life. Herein lies the basis of contentment. The sadness about the loss may never completely disappear, but it ceases to be overwhelming and debilitating. Life marches on. Note that I didn’t use the word ‘happiness’ in the previous sentence. I’m into my sixth decade of life and I really cannot define the word ‘happiness’. I can get my head around the concept of contentment because that suggests to me that a person has achieved a fairly positive outlook and is able to put tragedy into a healthy perspective.
Sudden death is always very difficult to experience for the survivors, but unbridled grieving seems to me to be even more tragic. Personally, I feel devastated by the thought that my loved ones would be unable to continue on and have productive and contented lives after I’m gone. I would hope that I have benefited their lives in some way or taught them something worthwhile while I still lived and breathed. Contentment depends upon a positive state of mind that embraces all that life throws at us. In my experience, this is a very difficult state to achieve and maintain. But I also believe that it is a choice. I can choose to be miserable and depressed; or I can elect to be upbeat and content.