A Brief Reflection

[TW: discussion of suicide]

Last week, the day before the inauguration, I was sitting in a meeting with one of my grade level teams when I got a text from a friend about one of our former students who had recently died.

Longtime readers and folks who know me in person are aware that this isn’t the first time I’ve had this experience; two years in a row at my old job I heard about students and former students who had died suddenly.  Both times were difficult, especially because they were kids that were known by the other students; it’s hard to describe the stress that comes from trying to manage your emotions while your helping a group of kids who already have difficulty managing their own emotions work through this kind of bad news.  For months afterward, those students’ deaths hit me in weird ways.

This time I felt vaguely sad, but it was a pretty detached feeling.  I was texting with my friend about this while my coworkers went on talking about how we were going to proceed with teaching Othello this week; I didn’t bother to tell them anything had happened.  This wasn’t a kid that they’d ever met, so the only reaction I felt like they’d be able to offer was the same sort of abstract sympathy that you reflexively present whenever you find out someone’s received some really bad news that doesn’t impact you.  Even as I’m writing this, I’m still trying to figure out my own emotions and whether I’m feeling personally impacted; it’s hard to judge, especially since I’m beginning to understand that my process for working through grief isn’t really an overt thing.  I’m five years removed from my last interaction with this student, and I honestly don’t know how this news is going to shape my emotions over the next few months.

There is one thing that I know I’m feeling more sensitive about after this latest loss; this student committed suicide.  I don’t have any details, so I don’t know the circumstances surrounding their decision to end their life, but given what I remember about the student, it’s likely an expression of their mental illness.  In light of that, I’ve felt much more acutely aware of all the immature jokes that some of my students make about killing themselves over minor inconveniences, and I’m feeling less inclined to chide their jokes and move on.  It’s a pervasive fear among educators that we might miss signals that children are in need of help or fail to act when we do recognize them.  Once this year I’ve had to stop class to deliver a serious talk to my students about the importance of not joking about suicidal ideation and also making sure they tell an adult if they are having thoughts along those lines.  That was a weird, somewhat uncomfortable shift from the upbeat tone I usually try to take in class, but it felt necessary in that moment.

Now I’m wondering if there will be more of those moments, and if so, do I mention the incident with this student?  Personal connections are powerful tools for making lessons stick, but I’m not sure if this is a personal connection.  The news is less than a week old as I’m writing this, and I still don’t know how I’m affected.  I don’t want to cheapen what happened to my old student by using them like some kind of object lesson.  That’s a hard thing to weigh against the importance of teaching children that it’s okay to seek help when they’re having suicidal thoughts and feelings.

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Given the nature of this post, it feels like it would be irresponsible not to include links to some resources for anyone coping with suicidal thoughts.  If you are experiencing suicidal ideation, please seek help immediately.  You are a unique and irreplaceable person, and the world will absolutely be lesser without you.

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What Have We Done?

I slept poorly the night of the election.  Things did not look reassuring when I went to bed, and I found myself waking in anxious fits every couple hours until the morning.  Every time I woke up, I thought about reaching for my phone to see what the results had been, but I had to weigh that against the need to get more sleep.  Whatever the outcome, I needed to go to work the next day, and a potentially miserable day didn’t need to be compounded with lack of sleep.

I woke up with my alarm, and Rachael immediately showed me the headlines on her phone.

He won.

I’ve gone through a variety of reactions as I’ve been processing the news.  I imagine I’ll be processing it for a long while.

The analytical side of me wants to know how the polls were so off.  All the data pointed towards a likely win for Clinton, and the data was catastrophically off.  I’ve been saying for months that he couldn’t win because his electoral strategy involved only appealing to one subset of the whole population.  The numbers didn’t add up.  It did not math.

The violent side of me rages, even if only internally.  We elected a monster.  We knew he was a monster.  Not one day since the beginning of his campaign has he hidden who he is, and we picked him.  I want to scream constantly; I want to curse in the faces of people I know voted for him, want to tear things down, want to lash out so badly.  It feels like it would be easy to exchange hurt for hurt.  I’d just have to let go, indulge those base desires.  It would be cathartic; there’s that tiny, electric thrill that comes from just thinking of doing it.  How much more intense would the relief be with the actual act?

The self-loathing side of me has trouble looking in a mirror.  I look like the people who elected him.  It echoes in my head, “You are the problem,” and I can only muster a whispered response, “I’m not like that; I voted for her; I spent months pointing out everything wrong with him; I did everything I thought I could do.”  It’s small comfort in the face of the reality that to people who will be most hurt by the next four years, I look like the enemy.  It hurts immensely to realize I’ve come to thinking about enemies in my own country.

The afraid side of me rises in terror in between breaths.  We elected a man so intemperate, so unstable, that I worry about the safety of the world.  I wish I were being hyperbolic, but I’m just not.  He’s going to have access to nuclear weapons.  He’s going to command the strongest military in the world.  He throws temper tantrums when people point out things he’s said and done on the record.  I am afraid.  I don’t know when I’m going to stop.

The sad side of me is the strongest.  Every thought it punctuated with grief.  Every moment I’m alone threatens to resolve in tears.  People will die because of this man.  My friends who are female, Black, Muslim, Latinx, and LGBTQ are going to suffer more because of what we’ve done.  Children will grow up in a country where they will see that we indulge our worst impulses on a national stage, and they will learn that is what it is to be a citizen in America.  I’ll have to watch that play out daily at work, and my admonitions to be better to one another will fall on deaf ears.

What comfort is there in this new world in which we find ourselves?  Where do we turn when our neighbors have betrayed us and themselves?  How do we go on into the future?

Reading “An Epilogue: Sunday Mourning”

The last time I went to a renaissance festival, I saw a booth that said, “Ye Olde Taco Stand,” or something similar.  It was delightfully anachronistic, and pointed to the quirky nature of things like renfests.  It’s a bunch of people with relatively esoteric interests in things that may or may not relate to the actual historical period getting together to put on a day for themselves and people who want to come visit.  In a lot of ways it feels very much akin to conventions that I’ve been to, though without so much of the crowding and obnoxious waiting in line to do fun things.

In this issue of The Sandman, Gaiman takes the concept of the renfest and gently skewers it with the help of my favorite centuries old curmudgeon Hob Gadling.  This story takes place a few months after Dream’s funeral, and it just chronicles a day that Hob spends at a renaissance fair where his latest girlfriend works.  Most of the day is spent simply drinking to help cope with the cheesy environs, but in the midst of that stubbornly mundane series of events, Hob processes his own reaction to Dream’s passing.

It seems that at the heart of this story is a reflection on how time gradually erodes relationships and priorities.  Hob has lived significantly longer than most people, and the major strings of thought he focuses on here have to do with the friends he’s lost (remember that the last time we saw Hob before Dream’s funeral was in the immediate aftermath of another lover’s sudden death) and the evil things he’s done (Hob has recently started dating a Black woman, Guenevere, and this new experience has him fixated on his own culpability in the Atlantic slave trade).  It seems like the perfect sort of set up for Hob to finally decide he’s ready to die, but even after having a conversation with Death confirming that Dream’s funeral was a thing Hob really experienced, he decides to go on, unsure that he’ll ever be ready for the end.

When you break this story down to its plot points it’s a pretty thin one, but that feels okay.  Hob holds a pretty special place in The Sandman mythos as the first person Dream called his friend in the series, and it’s fitting that our last moment thinking about Dream’s passing are spent with him.  The themes that Hob meditates on here, slavery, regret, carrying on without your loved ones, echo the experiences that Dream’s had over the course of his story.  He told Hob he shouldn’t be in the slaver business in the first place, and then he ended up trapped himself.  He spent much of the series learning how to make amends for things he’d done to others before, and Hob, whose few centuries are only a fraction of Dream’s lifetime, is caught in a place now where he’s unsure how to make up for his own sins; the people he personally hurt are all long dead, unlike Dream who had the luxury of associating mostly with immortals.  Hob’s many dead friends also echo the most painful aspects of Dream’s own history; it’s arguably Nada and Orpheus who left the strongest imprints on Dream, and the only way he’s able to reach closure with them is by helping them move on.  It’s perhaps only the fact that Hob learns these lessons more quickly, if not more easily (how can persistent loss ever be easy?), that distinguishes him from his friend.

Maybe that, and the fact that unlike Dream Hob is not resistant to change for the better.

This is the look Death gives everyone who asks her a question for which Gaiman doesn’t have an answer. (Artwork by Michael Zulli, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

The issue’s climax is an extended conversation Hob has with Death; she comes to visit him as a favor to Dream.  She confirms for him that Dream really has died, and she presents him with the option to die if he’d like.  He defers, wondering if he’ll ever be ready to do that, even with all the losses he’s experienced in his life (though Hob’s first few centuries appeared to be characterized by him being relatively carefree, it’s been well established that he’s had a long line of lovers and wives and left behind at least a few children).  Hob thinks of his life as a long, slow robbing of what he holds dear, but I see him more as being weighed down.  He has so many memories of pressing down, affecting how he sees things in the present, but he maintains this resilience to keep going on, perhaps indefinitely.  A look at the trajectory of Hob’s life suggests that even if his relationship with Gwen is successful, they’ll have a few decades at most before he’ll either need to disappear again or she’ll die and leave him behind.  It’s a painful cycle that has to bear down immensely after so many repetitions, but Hob keeps soldiering on, finding happiness in each new meeting as he sees reflected in it the memories of previous partings.

The issue ends with Hob having one last nap before he and Gwen head home for the day.  It’s a brief one, but during it he dreams of Dream.  It’s a weird moment, because this is clearly a dream that happens chronologically after Dream’s death, so the Dream Hob meets is actually a dream of Dream, although that’s not entirely clear since Destruction is also there, and for all we know it really is Destruction come to hang out with Hob and his brother.  The metaphysics of the Dream in Hob’s dream can get confusing pretty quickly, so it’s probably best not to think too hard about them.  Instead, I want to just end on the image of comfort Hob has here.  It evokes a familiar feeling for me; I occasionally dream about loved ones who are gone, and those are always really good dreams.

Artwork by Michael Zulli, colors by Daniel Vozzo.

Next time we’ll look at the story of an old man crossing a desert.

Reading “Chapter Three: In Which We Wake”

There are three issues left in The Sandman after this one, and they’re not bad (I actually quite like the next issue, which will focus on Hob Gadling about a month after Dream’s funeral), but they feel more like a series of epilogues than the actual ending to the series.  For most intents and purposes, this is the end of the series (except that, y’know, I’m going to discuss the last three issues too in the coming weeks; it seems only fair after getting this far).

Imagine Jed trying to make conversation to his right instead. Awkward. (Artwork by Michael Zulli, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

In this issue we finally see Dream’s funeral, complete with eulogies from those who were closest to him (and Destiny, because I guess it was in the program that he was supposed to speak) and a send off that still makes me kind of weepy when I read it.  We also have some more fun cameos (Rose and Jed Walker are seated between Emperor Joshua Norton and Darkseid, which tickles me endlessly) and Dream having a friendly chat with his brother Destruction.  Also (and this is no small thing), Dream holds audience with Hippolyta Hall after the funeral and informs her that he forgives her for killing him.

What we’ve seen with the structure of the story up to this point is a repeating pattern of reflections from people who have known Dream with each successive iteration focusing on people who were closer and closer to him.  The first issue of this arc shows how Dream’s servants viewed him as they learn the differences between him before and after his death; the second issue gradually moves from acquaintances like the immortal homeless woman Mad Hettie to Rose Walker and Lyta Hall, whose lives were significantly changed by their encounters with him, to Dream’s previous lovers; this third issue is set aside primarily for the Endless themselves and Dream’s closest friends (and also a sampling of the apparently many other eulogies given, like one from Wesley Dodds, the DC character who was the original Sandman from the 1940s).

There’s a certain irony in the eulogies of the Endless; they’re Dream’s family, so they have pride of place as the chief speakers at his funeral, but most of them are not especially close to him.  Destiny doesn’t seem very attached to any of his younger siblings, Desire has been feuding with Dream for eons, and Despair (whose closest positive relationship among her siblings is with the absent Destruction) has always seemed only vaguely fond of Dream.  Delirium’s relationship with Dream is fairly positive since Brief Lives, but that’s an incredibly brief time in the span of their relationship.  Death, who was easily the one closest to her brother, doesn’t give a eulogy; instead she closes out the funeral with a benediction, though Gaiman leaves her actual words a mystery.  The eulogies from the first four Endless range in quality (Destiny says pretty much what you’d expect, and Desire can’t bring themself to express any genuine regret about the turn their relationship took with Dream, Despair offers a strangely moving thought on her admiration of Dream and commitment to remembering him when no one else does, and Delirium makes a typically muddled statement that’s punctuated with a moment of stark, painful clarity), but they all offer a somewhat shallow view of their brother in comparison to the complex stories other people tell about him.

Everyone’s there! Even Zulli and Gaiman! (Artwork by Michael Zulli, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

Matthew the raven gets to give the last eulogy, and while it’s no longer than any of the others, it feels like a good summation of Dream.  Matthew notes that most of the time Dream acted like he was above Matthew, and on rare occasions the fact that they were friends shone through.  Dream wasn’t comfortable being intimate with people, and he often worked hard at keeping even his closest friends at a distance most of the time.  Matthew’s reflection feels especially poignant since the secondary plot of this entire arc has been Matthew’s slow processing of Dream’s death.  He was willing to die with Dream but was denied that.  He was bewildered to see so many of his other friends, like Mervyn Pumpkinhead, restored to life as though nothing had happened while the Dream he knew was irreparably lost.  He asked Dream to end his service as a raven, and was advised to wait until after the funeral to make his decision.  Now, speaking before Dream’s body, Matthew finishes his arc with acceptance of the way things must change and resolve to continue being Dream’s advisor as he learns how to navigate his duties in this new aspect of himself.  Matthew’s been sort of the reader’s surrogate throughout, and it’s comforting to see him coming to terms with what’s happened.

Gaiman ends this issue with an extended narration that addresses the reader directly as one of the many dreamers who have attended Dream’s wake and funeral.  It’s a nice bit of metanarrative that blurs the line between the two aspects of Dream’s realm that have consistently been present throughout the series: dreams while asleep and stories.  The whole of The Wake has been built around wordplay with the various meanings of the term “wake,” and in this last chapter we finish off the way every dream does.  You get the sense that there’s still more to tell, but it’s time to move on to other things and so everything ends when you’re still not quite ready.  It’s a fine way to finish Dream’s story here.

Of course, we’re not totally done with the series.  Next issue will follow Hob Gadling one last time, and then we have to wrap up those other two issues.

Struggling to Begin While Despising the End

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?