Nadia* came to my desk the other day. The other students were working on an assignment, and she had a question about something she had missed a few days prior.
“I wasn’t here the day we did this,” she said.
“Yes, I remember. You missed a few days. Is everything OK?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she answered, “first my grandma died and we had all the arrangements for that, then my uncle died.”
“Oh my goodness! I am so sorry! That is a lot of loss all at once. I am impressed that you are working to get caught up. How can I support you?”
It’s not uncommon for us to hear about these kinds of losses. I myself lost a much-loved uncle last month, and many of us lost loved ones during Covid. However, it always shocks me when I learn of the amount of death my students have faced in their young lives.
Bianca* was sitting near my desk this week working on a college application. She was hoping it wouldn’t require a social security number because her mother had been reluctant to share hers with her when we had been getting FSA IDs, the first step in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) .
“If it’s required, I’m just gonna call my mom and tell her I have to have it,” she said.
.”Does your mom want you to go to college?” I asked.
She shook her head no.
“Hmm. What would she like you to do?”
“She wants me to keep doing hair.”
“That’s right, you do hair. Is that what she does, too?”
“No, she doesn’t work, because my dad was a firefighter who died, so she is taken care of.”
“Oh my!” I said. “When did that happen?”
She held up three fingers and said, “Three years ago.”
“I am so sorry! I had no idea.”
And while we were chatting, her mom texted her the number, and Bianca completed her application.
Working with high school seniors, I see that kind of subtle movement all the time. One week a parent refuses to let their child have her SSN, then suddenly, nonchalantly, she sends it in a text two weeks later. Parents are ready to release when they are ready to release and not a moment sooner.
And it makes sense when you know that the mother and the daughter have already experienced devastating loss.
I’ve been listening to Anderson Cooper’s new podcast, All There Is, which is his examination of his own grief through conversations with others who have also experienced loss. Cooper lost his father to heart disease at age 10, his brother to suicide when he was 21, and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, just a few years ago. As he navigates the packing up of his mother’s things, he is struck by all the unprocessed grief from the previous losses and how raw the hurt still is.
As I’m listening, I hear his voice crack as he recalls a detail, and my throat tightens, My eyes well up and my chest feels heavy. I have not experienced much physical death among my immediate family and friends, but I have definitely experienced loss — the loss of my parents’ marriage when I was seven, the loss of some dreams for our family that were taken away, some by circumstance, some by error, and some by violence, and the loss of my health and career before I was even 50.
We all experience loss. We all experience death.
Cooper posits, and I agree, that we don’t make enough space for discussions of our losses and the hurts that we carry with us. Instead, we try to pack them up, put them away, and function in a way that seems “normal” when we will never feel “normal” again.
In one of his interviews, Cooper speaks with Stephen Colbert, who lost his father and two brothers in an airplane crash when he was 10. Colbert says it was the worst thing that happened in his life, but he has grown to be grateful for it — not the deaths, of course, but the opening it created in him that has allowed him to see the devastations in the lives of others and the ability to have compassion for them.
I resonate with that. For many years I have said that while my parents’ divorce was — for a long time — the biggest blow to my life, it grew in me an understanding of brokenness that prepared me to marry a man who had been divorced. Having stepparents prepared me to be a stepparent. Having experienced trauma and devastation in our own family has opened a chasm in my heart that has space for the brokenness I see in my students and my friends.
Because I have written about loss, and because my husband and I have explored our losses in depth with our therapists, with each other, and most extensively with a small group of friends who we meet with every week, we were prepared last spring and again this fall, to share our story with a small group of others like us who are in the midst of devastation and who are looking for shreds of hope. We believe, like Anderson Cooper, that we don’t talk about our losses — especially not in polite company, and even less in the church. Especially if those losses involve estrangement, divorce, sexual assault, alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, or crime.
So when we stand in front of a group of church folk (last spring) or church workers (this fall) and tell our story, we do it as educators. We model — this is how you can be vulnerable and tell your story. We provide safety — you are in a room full of others who also have a story. We give space — take a chance, and share a piece of your story with someone next to you.
And they do.
And the tears flow.
Strangers touch hands and are no longer strangers.
It looks like resurrection.
Theologian and writer Jeff Chu asked in his opening talk at the 2022 Evolving Faith Conference** last weekend, “What does resurrection matter except to those have tasted death?”
What does new life matter, until you thought that life was gone forever?
When you have sobbed on your pillow knowing your family will never be whole again and then you see a connection, you receive an invitation, you embrace someone who has felt the rending of the flesh as deeply as you have and somehow what was dead seems to breathe new life,
Resurrection isn’t witnessed in isolation, is it? I find I see it most in community — in the sharing of stories, of tears, of understanding. I see it in friendships that walk through the valley of the shadow of death together long enough to get to the other side.
This fall I’ve had a student in my class, Monique*. Her attendance has been intermittent — she’s pregnant. When she comes, I greet her without judgment because I don’t know her story.; I only know that she has one. For the past week or more her seat has been empty. She didn’t appear to be full-term, so I didn’t expect that she had had the baby. I expected her to walk back in any morning, just as she had been doing all fall. But yesterday, I was standing in the office when her sister, a recent graduate, walked in. We chatted, and she mentioned that Monique had had the baby, but that the baby “didn’t make it”.
What happens to a seventeen year old heart when it has carried a life, moved through labor, and then experienced such a devastating loss?
I have no idea, but I am hoping to hear Monique’s story, and I am longing for her to experience resurrection.
[He] comforts us in all our trouble so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”2 Corinthians 1:4
*All student names have been changed, of course.
**Although the Evolving Faith conference is over, you can still register and watch the entire event, which was virtual and recorded.