of Death and Resurrection

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.

Coronavirus Diary #27: Heavy

I knew the pandemic was heavy. Way back in April of last year, when I wrote Feeling the Funk, I was aware of the psychological weight of staying at home, isolating from our people, wearing masks, and altering the patterns of our lives. Ten months later, I’ve built up some muscle; I’ve gotten used to lugging around the burden and taking it in stride. Rather than moving in fits and starts, frantically watching the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center Map as the case numbers and fatalities tick up, I have turned my gaze to daily life, kept steadily stepping, and tried to find joy wherever I can — a student who shows up to office hours, our dog neatly snuggled under his newly-crocheted afghan, or a fresh pot of chicken soup.

Yes, I plunk on the couch and watch the news each evening — looking squarely at the carnage, racial injustice, health care inequities, and political corruption we’ve all born witness to in the last months. Then, I detach via Netflix, go to bed, get up the next morning, drive to Detroit, and do my best for my students. I try to keep going and to focus on the the mission rather than what I’m missing. Yes, I watch the news, I know the deaths in the US have climbed to over 485,000. I realize that over 10% of our population has now received at least one dose of vaccine, but I am also aware that a return to anything resembling ‘normal’ is quite a way off. I am aware, but I try to not dwell on it. I try to get up every day, take care of myself, do my job, and find some joy.

So last week, when I logged into my online therapy session and heard myself sharing how thankful I was for my current job in a tone that sounded like I was delivering bad news, I was caught off guard.

I was telling my therapist that I had had an opportunity to be involved in a lived experience conversation with my colleagues — the first, actually, in what we hope to be a long series of group discussions about the varied experiences of the members of the group — what we’ve seen as white, black, male, female, gay, straight humans living in cities, suburbs, and towns. We’re hoping to learn about each other, to break down the walls of assumption and bias, and to further our quest toward equity for our students.

This is exactly the kind of work I’ve been wanting to do, so why did my tone sound so defeated, so depressed. I even remarked, “Wow. I’m making this sound like it’s bad news, when really I am very happy to be doing this work.”

Then my therapist said, “Almost everyone I’ve seen for the last couple of weeks has kind of been in a funk. We just passed the one year mark of when the first case was found in the US, and we don’t see a time when we will ‘get back to normal.'”

And I knew that — I mean, I wrote about it just a few weeks ago (post here), and I was still surprised by the heaviness of it.

The weight of living in this pandemic has been piling on. We are carrying an enormous communal grief — the loss of plans, the loss of livelihood, the loss of community, the loss of routine, and the loss of life. Some of us are feeling it more than others.

Many have experienced the uncommon loss of being separated from a loved one during their last days like my Aunt Margaret who hadn’t seen my uncle for three months when he died of complications of Covid-19. After 71 years of marriage, his last days were alone.

Many while carrying the heaviness of the pandemic, have also been lugging extra burdens such as caring for young children who are suddenly schooling at home, supporting parents with comorbidities who can’t risk going out, being displaced from jobs and struggling financially, or newly navigating the technology that allows working from home.

While the pandemic has been hard for all of us, it has been exponentially harder for people of color. Not only have they suffered and died from Covid-19 at higher rates, they’ve also been harder hit financially and have had to fight against systemic issues such as disparities in health care, education, housing, and employment. And, as always, they continue to experience violence and death at higher rates as a result of such systemic inequities.

As a white girl who, along with my husband, hasn’t missed a paycheck, is employed by an agency I love, and enjoys the highest quality health care my insurance can pay for and our money can buy, I feel the weight of this past year on my shoulders, but certainly not to the extent of those who live in the communities of color that I have worked in.

I was reminded of this over the last few weeks. One of my current students, who lives in Detroit, just missed two weeks of class because a family member with mental illness burned her family’s home to the ground. They’ve been reeling from that trauma and trying to find a new place to live, when finances are tighter than they’ve ever been before. They were already carrying too much; this must feel like more than they can bear. (Here is a GoFundMe if you feel moved to support them.)

Another current student has missed the last three weeks of school because he is in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound. A teenager with a gunshot wound. How heavy must it be for his parents, who were already managing life as a Black family living in Detroit in the midst of a pandemic, to now also be carrying all of the spoken and unspoken realities they and their son are now facing?

I feel an added heaviness just knowing that these students of mine who I’ve known just a few months are suffering, but what weight must their families and communities be feeling?

I got a taste of what such community pain might feel like this past week. Early last Monday morning, I learned that a former student, a member of the community of students, alumni, teachers, and parents that I was deeply involved with for almost 10 years — a classmate of two of my own children — had been shot and killed, along with her mother, in an act of domestic violence. She was 25, and now she’s gone. This determined young woman often showed up in my classroom after school to ask a question or just to chat. She’d been the first generation in her family to graduate from college, and within the last year or so, had reached out for a letter of recommendation for a position to which she was applying. After news of her death started circulating and I saw all of her classmates and friends posting on social media, I was in shock. How can such a promising young life be over?

Just three days later, I got another taste. Another former student, from that same community, a 30 year old husband and father of three, had died of a previously undiagnosed illness after five days in the hospital on life support. I remember the day he joined my class, having relocated to St. Louis from Chicago. He was a sweet soul, kind and tender. He, too, is now gone. (Here is a GoFundMe if you are interested in helping with funeral expenses and support of his family.)

These things are heavy, and our friends in communities of color have faced them so often that they know how to respond. While I am still sitting here shaking my head and wondering what happened, they’ve reached out to one another, organized GoFundMe campaigns, scheduled balloon releases, found photos of memories to post on social media, written poetry and tributes, and begun the process of mourning.

Me? I’m sitting over here still so stunned that I have no idea why my tone is depressed when I’m sharing good news. I haven’t processed the fact that my already heavy load just got a bit heavier. I haven’t realized that it’s time to put it down, to look squarely at the loss, and to grieve.

So, finally, as I write this, I am grieving — I’m mourning the loss of two young lives who will be sorely missed by their people. I’m grieving the realities of two more who are facing trauma upon trauma. I’m realizing again that the pandemic in itself is heavy and that some of us are carrying so much more.

Be kind to one another, friends. We’re in this for a while. Check in with one another — make a call or send a note.

Reach out to someone. What they are carrying is heavy; perhaps you can lighten their load.

Cast your burden unto Jesus, for He cares for you.

Gospel song.