Teaching Through the Grief: Holding it All Together When a Parent Dies

by Alison English

It was a Thursday morning, two days before my week-long Thanksgiving break. I was so excited to spend quality time with my family, drink hot cider and eat turkey until I fell asleep, consume comfort carbs, and cap off the weekend by pulling out my Christmas decorations.

Instead, I spent the Sunday before Thanksgiving at a graveside. My father had passed away suddenly.

On this Thursday night before Thanksgiving break, I received a panic-stricken call from my older sister. Her only words to me, even before a greeting, were, “Alison, Dad’s gone. He’s gone.” Since she was calling me at 9:00 at night, her meaning was immediately very clear to me. My dad had just passed away suddenly, with no notice and no allowance of goodbyes or final words. The news knocked the breath out of me so hard that I nearly passed out and had to hand the phone to my husband so that I could run to the restroom.

Unfortunately, before I could begin processing the news I had just received, my next thoughts were, “Oh no, I need to contact my school! My coworkers, my content team, my principal, the secretaries ALL need to know, and then I’ve got to contact a substitute! Are my emergency plans up to date, or do I need to make copies? Where is my login information to secure a substitute online, and will anyone even pick it up at such a late hour? I’m supposed to be at school tomorrow! How am I going to do all of this?”

In other professions, workers are allowed to take sick days or personal days without detailed explanation or the expectation that the same capacity of work is completed in their absence. Click To Tweet

Friends, this should not be. In other professions, workers are allowed to take sick days or personal days without detailed explanation or the expectation that the same capacity of work is completed in their absence. In our profession, we are uniquely crafted individuals with an established purpose…and while I understand the infinite importance of that, sometimes we all still need to be able to shut it off and take care of our own personal matters away from our sacred school setting.

Back to reality.

Within a few minutes, I took my phone back from my husband, but the necessary words would not come. I could not internally verbalize to myself, much less out loud, that my father had just passed away suddenly.

No opportunity to say goodbye to him meant no capability of verbalizing my new reality; nonetheless, I had responsibilities to maintain. I eventually had to give the phone back to my husband, and he tried a few coworkers’ phone numbers before contact was finally made.

In the early hours and days of being initially consumed by the loss of my dad, my thoughts were not on my pain; they were on my responsibilities. I knew my coworkers had said, “Don’t worry about school, we’ll take care of it,” but the guilt of not being there still gnawed at me in the back of my mind. Why can’t we turn this off? Why can’t we give ourselves some grace at times when we need it most?

Friends, we HAVE to. We HAVE to put ourselves first, especially in moments, months, and even seasons of grief.

In the spirit of the Thanksgiving season, due to the regularly scheduled school calendar, I was very grateful to have received a full week off from school. I only ended up needing to take two personal days for travel and service arrangements, so that was a “blessing.”

When it was finally time to return to school, though, I was so anxious. My grief was still fresh, but it is not the burden or responsibility of my students to know this information. Some of them would have been consoling; others may have used it against me in times of weakness or anger. I was not about to be that vulnerable with my students. My coworkers were very supportive, but my eyes would pool with tears any time a comforting word was offered. I even had to open the door to my next-door classroom neighbor and ask for a restroom break so that I could go cry in the teacher’s lounge. It was ROUGH.

I couldn’t go on this way. I couldn’t allow my grief to sap the strength, creativity, and energy that my kids expected and deserved from me every day. I couldn’t allow the cycle of anger in me to lash out at them when my patience was short and their “petty little issues” didn’t compare to the loss I was suffering. I had just lost my dad; I couldn’t lose my job, too. At the same time, I couldn’t bottle up this anger and grief all day, not acknowledging it, then either curl into a ball or lash out at my husband as soon as I got home, either. Again, I had just lost my dad; I couldn’t lose my marriage, too.

So what did I teach myself to do? Breathe. Just breathe. When the grief threatens to take your breath away, force yourself to inhale and exhale. When a coworker or student angers you in a quick exchange, or tests your patience to the fullest, just breathe.

Inhale.

Exhale.

It may seem simple or cliche, but I’ll never forget the impact it made on that time in my life. It is a habit I still carry with me today.

This year, as I approach the anniversary of losing my dad, of course, I have anxiety, sadness, and anger on my mind. However, as I chose to inhale those negative emotions and exhale gratitude, I find that my attitude gets better. Every. Single. Time. May this be some words of encouragement for when you or a treasured co-worker faces similar circumstances.

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By |2018-12-03T08:46:43+00:00December 2nd, 2018|From the Front Lines|1 Comment

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One Comment

  1. M December 6, 2018 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    I had a similar experience when my marriage very abruptly ended. I got home ON A SCHOOL NIGHT and my husband told me he was leaving, also right before Thanksgiving break. After I got through the initial argument and shock, I bought a plane ticket to my hometown and…texted my boss. And then, while I was in bed sobbing, I wrote DAYS of sub plans. I had one day of emergency plans, not three or four.

    I originally said it was a family emergency, but had to have “the talk” with my bosses when I got back. I was struggling and had ZERO support from them. It was a school with no due process, and they ultimately even tried to force me to quit because I A) wasn’t on my A-game and B) the divorce was embarrassing in a “family school environment.” (Not a parochial school, either.)

    We need a required support system, we need to have the ability to get things taken care of without us doing 100% of the work, and we need to be allowed to feel the trauma and grief we allow for our kids.

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