I am not writing for sympathy.
I am writing this for my sister-in-law. In fact, lets just call her my sister because that is how I see her.
My sister (because that is how I see her) and I have a great deal in common. For starters, my husband. He is a pretty cool guy, but there is more to what we share then just him. We both have a passion for teaching. We can easily drink our way through a bottle of champagne discussing at length how we could change the entire education system if someone just let us.
about two months ago now,
a split second in time gave us one more thing in common.
We have both lost a child.
I lost my daughter eight years ago to congenital heart disease and my beautiful nephew was killed in a fatal car accident.
Again, I am not writing this for me.
I am not writing for sympathy.
I am writing this for my sister (because that is how I see her) and all the other teachers that have to return to teaching after losing a child.
Returning to work after experiencing a great loss, regardless of the job, can be difficult. There is firstly the challenge of pulling yourself out of bed, getting yourself dressed and facing the world. You know you have to, but some days you don’t want to because it hurts that bit too much.
To my sister, it is worth the effort. You are needed.
Work can be an escape, a welcomed distraction… that is if you are allowed that distraction. There is the fear of someone bringing it up just before the staff meeting, the fear of crying in front of your colleagues, the fear of those well-meaning looks of pity.
To my sister, you are both strong and allowed to cry. You are human.
To my sister’s colleagues, or the colleagues of anyone out there returning to work, if you want to give your condolences do so briefly. “I am sorry for your loss” will suffice. Better yet maybe you could say, “It is good to have you back. You have been missed.” Whatever you say move on quickly. Do not ask details, do not speak at length about what a great kid he is (even though he was!)…. speak to her about work. Furthermore, do not walk on eggshells. Normality is needed. Treat the person exactly how you would have before. Do not avoid them because you don’t know how to act. Just be yourself.
Stepping back into the classroom can be a challenge. You stare out and see all these faces staring back. These are someone’s children. They are not your children. This is when teaching really changed for me. When I entered my classroom for the first time after losing Rosie my heart was filled with love. I was overwhelmed by the enormity of my responsibility. The parents of these children entrust them to me each and every day. From that moment on every decision I have made regarding the kids in my class is pre-empted by the thought “What would I want done for my child in this situation?”. I will advocate for each and everyone of them. I love them regardless of their flaws and challenges. If they need a champion, a role-model, a mentor - I will be it. I know how precious their lives are and I want to make each one of their days with me joyful.
To my sister, you are a champion, a role-model, and the perfect mentor. Make a difference to each one of their precious lives and find joy in the time you spend with them. They will not judge, they will not look at you with pity. They will love you whole-heartedly and take away a little piece of that pain.
One of the most difficult challenges I faced when returning to teaching was dealing with parents. They often made me angry. I remember sitting in an IEP meeting with a parent who was more concerned about how the child was impacting on their day-to-day life then on the actual child. I wanted to shake them and scream “Do you realise how lucky you are? You have your child. You can hold them and tell them you love them. How can you sit here and selfishly complain?” The same happens when I see a kid come to school without lunch or a dirty uniform, or when I know they are going home to an empty, loveless house. This anger still rises up now eight years on and I have to let it go.
To my sister, the parents in front of you have not experienced the same pain. They need support, guidance and love. Their children do too and you are the right person to do this.
There are other challenges too.
When the kid in your class has the same name as your child.
When you are covering a topic touching on grief or loss.
When a word, an image, a moment reminds you of them.
When something triggers your grief.
These moments can knock the wind out of you.
To my sister, in these moments breathe and know that they will pass.
Most importantly, there is something healing about hanging with kids all day. There is so much joy in the classroom. Laugh with your students, dance with them, play outside and let their sunshine light up your day. They will not replace him, not ever, but they can bring you happiness if you can let them into your heart.
To my sister and all the teacher parents returning to work after losing a child, you can do this. I know because I have. You are a teacher and you can do anything.
Finally, one last note to my sister’s colleagues….
bring her cake and laugh with her about the time the first grader stuck half a crayon up his nose.
This too is important.