Last Friday I got an urgent call from one of my coworkers that one of our students had suddenly passed away. It was a bad end to an otherwise ideal Spring Break. Once I received the message, I volunteered to pass it along to the rest of my coworkers that I was able to contact (there’s a breadth of moments after getting this kind of news where the mind first processes what needs to happen next before allowing emotions to catch up and begin the silent impotent rage that often accompanies word that someone young has died; it’s in those moments that I made what phone calls I could). Every conversation started the same way we all typically start conversations.
“Hey, so-and-so, this is Jason.”
“Hi, Jason. How are you?”
And then I’d trip, because the sentence that is supposed to follow doesn’t apply in that specific moment. It’s absurd to say, “I’m fine. I was calling to let you know that one of our students died.” At best you sound like a liar, and at worst you sound like a monster. So instead you settle for sounding like someone who’s not quite caught up with the words that are coming out of his mouth, and you wonder at what point you have successfully signaled to the other person that this is not a phone call about anything pleasant or even just mildly annoying. The words come out, and you wait for the response, which ranges from the muted, “That’s awful,” to the shouted curse that passed your own lips in the moment when you realized someone half your age failed to outlive you.
And then you do it three more times.
In the wake of that task I expected for the shock to wear off and the feelings to settle in. Sadly this isn’t the first time I’ve had this experience, and I expected that much like the previous time, there would come a point after holding everything together so I could do my job that I would crack and the full weight of what was going on would press down and immobilize me in tears and frustration. That point hasn’t come yet, and with each day that passes, I wonder if it will come this time. Every death is different, and you’d think that I’d remember that fact, but I can’t help looking for similarities between experiences. I guess that’s just the natural impulse that comes from wanting to have a schema for what to expect, both from myself and from other people.
I’m writing this post on Monday night, after the first day back to school following the break. We had planned to spend the day helping the rest of the students work through any feelings they might experience in dealing with a classmate’s death. It was a surprisingly easy day to get through. We were all prepared for the worst kind of blowouts, because when you work with kids with EBD you expect them to have disproportionate reactions to minor frustrations; in the case of a major event like this, you don’t quite know what to expect. Instead there was some discussion of the incident first thing this morning, a round of making cards for the family and a memorial that we’ll hang up in the school, and then we settled in to decompress by watching movies.
In retrospect it feels like there should have been more to it. The last time I went through a day like this, I was busy calling parents because I had kids who couldn’t stand to be at school while they were dealing with news like this, talking with students who were having trouble processing what had happened, doing all those things that you really wish someone would do for you when someone who mattered to you has died. After the first time, I came home from work and was so drained that I was barely able to explain to Rachael what had happened that day before I began crying. Today, I got home, and when she asked how the day went, all I could offer was a sheepish, “It was okay.”
I spent the whole weekend thinking that Monday was going to be awful, and then it just… wasn’t. I’m not sure what I was hoping for. Maybe some vicarious catharsis. Maybe a chance to see others reacting to the news the way that I wanted to react, in a show of unselfconscious rage that it’s wrong for these things to happen. I don’t know.
The question that I come back to is this: am I beginning to mourn this student, or is it coming to an end too early?