I write about death and dying a lot on my blog. Like Mark Twain, writing helps me process life’s events and death is the one that I really take a long time to process. Reading Julien’s blog post Are we dying to live or living to die made me recall a number of posts I’d written about death and dying, but as I looked through my posts on this blog, I remember I left one very important one out. I’m re-posting a series of blog posts I wrote on a different blog about the death of my oldest daughters’ first grade teacher. My daughter is now nearly 12 years old.
This will be a two parter. These entries are written during the days preceding the wake of Mrs. Parker, and the next one will be about her wake.
November 9, 2009:
We got a phone call from my daughters’ school:
We regret to inform you that Ms. Parker finally lost her battle with ovarian cancer.
On the same day, I got a random phone call:
Hi Casey, I’m so-and-so from three jobs ago. If you aren’t currently working, I might have a job you might be interested in.
[I hadn’t worked in 8 years and I wasn’t actively looking. Both phone calls rather shocked me – I remember I was alternating between being very excited and very sad that day.]
November 10, 2009 (afternoon):
We will be attending the wake for Mrs. Parker at the end of the week. She was M’s teacher for first grade.
M took the news of Mrs. Parker passing pretty well, though she did say that she would have been more upset if she and I hadn’t been talking about it all along.
I started talking with her a few months ago about how serious Mrs. Parker’s condition was, when I found out from another mother that she was not doing really well at all. Though she fought back about 5 times from relapses, she was finally losing the battle.
The teachers informed their students shortly before she died that Mrs. Parker was very ill and they suggested that anyone who wanted to write a get well card, they could during class and the teachers would make sure she got them.
I talked with her about it off and on for weeks, trying to broach the subject of cancer delicately and with hope (after all, she went into remission 5 times before, why not this time?). Remarkably, the children’s television show Arthur, one of my daughters’ favorites, aired a new episode called The Great McGrady on October 9th of this year. Mrs. McGrady was the lunch lady at Arthur’s school who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo chemotherapy. She and I watched that show together, so that she could understand a little bit better about what cancer was.
When M found out yesterday she died, she didn’t cry about it at school. When she came home, she cried, but not about the death of her teacher.
We did talk a little bit about her teacher though, because I didn’t want to walk away from the opportunity to help her through her feelings.
She also asked me about what kind of cancer she had, so I told her it was ovarian cancer, and then showed her a picture of what it was, then she asked some questions and somehow we ended up talking a little bit about what the ovaries do and ended up talking a little bit about reproduction. Not exactly what I planned to do, but I’m not one to avoid answering questions.
Wish me luck that I won’t break down when we go to the wake this week.
November 10, 2009 (evening):
The grieving started tonight. M’s school made the announcement yesterday that Mrs. P died over the weekend, losing a long battle with ovarian cancer. M told me she wasn’t sad, and that she didn’t even cry in school. She did, however, start crying buckets when we got into the car and she said she forgot to do something that might prevent her from participating in backwards day on Friday. Through tears, she said, “we’ve never had a backwards day and what if we never have one again?” I thought this was very strange and asked her if she thought any of her tears were because she was sad about Mrs. Parker. She told me no. I thought I got off easy.
That was a premature thought.
About 8:30 pm tonight, I went into M’s room to say goodnight to her and saw her looking at last year’s yearbook. She held up the book to me and pointed to Mrs. P’s photo. She started crying. We spent the next half an hour crying and talking and crying some more. I held my big girl (7 years old) as we both cried. I’m not sure if I was crying more for her or for me. I’m not sure if my crying made things harder for her or not. I just couldn’t help it.
This is very hard on both of us. I lost a dear friend to cancer a few years ago, and it’s been hard for me because of that. I’m not sure why she did, but Mrs. Parker told me that she had ovarian cancer during our parent-teacher conference in November of last year. It was a very intimate conversation for a parent teacher conference, but I was glad she opened up to me about it. I’d already known about it from other people, and yet, I wasn’t expecting her to be so honest. I was quite grateful she felt comfortable sharing with me. I think it’s far more stressful to avoid talking about serious illness than facing it head on.
Because of that conversation, I’ve been expecting this was going to happen for just about a year now and quite honestly, have been worried and dreading having to have M go through this. I am grateful it didn’t happen during the year she was my daughters’ teacher. And, in fact, she didn’t return to school this fall, so my daughters’ class was the last one she taught.
Mrs. Parker had been a teacher for 35 years. I could just tell how much Mrs. Parker cared about her kids, and I felt she was especially fond of M. She promised me she’d take extra care of M, knowing how sensitive she was and how shy she was socially. And every time she saw me, she told me how much she enjoyed having M in her class and how she felt so happy to see her bright and smiling face. We saw Mrs. Parker over the summer, after the science summer camp class was over and I picked up my daughters, Mrs. Parker’s face would just light up when she saw M, and M”s face would light up too. It seemed to me that M also felt especially close to Mrs. Parker. I am so grateful for that mutual affection and connection.
In talking with M about her death, M asked how you “catch” cancer, and why does your body stop fighting it even if you get treatment for it? These were tough questions to answer.
I tried to focus on the good things about Mrs. Parker, but that only made us both cry harder. The thing is, even though I didn’t know her that well, I did know she was such a sweet person and a dedicated and well-loved teacher. I wanted all my girls to have a chance to have her for first grade. I was going to miss her smile at us every time she saw us.
The most heartbreaking thing about our conversation tonight was that said she never got to say goodbye. But I did remind her that she did send cards and pictures and that I was sure Mrs. P knew that M loved her. I told her we would go to the wake on Friday. I have no idea how to prepare her for that.
I told M that it was okay if she needed to see Mrs. Z (school psychologist) to talk if she felt sad. She told me that if she was sad, that she’d cry after school. I told her that was okay and it might take a while to feel better and that was okay too.
I know she is private with her feelings, and never wants to cause a scene in front of anyone.
This is just….hard.
November 11, 2009:
I woke up this morning “hung over” with grief, wondering if I should call up my sister and ask for a valium. I almost blew off the pre-interview laboratory visit I had this afternoon, because I was barely functional.
But I didn’t blow it off.
And I went. Mostly to force myself out of my sadness. I didn’t even care to go, except I thought it might help distract me from the hurt. It did help, more than I thought it would.
November 12, 2009
Spent the afternoon in the ER today. Youngest daughter had split her head open on our wooden swingset. She was swinging on the rope that’s attached to a part of it, and slammed her head into a corner of the wooden post.
The good news was that while it bled some it didn’t bleed as profusely as middle daughter’s forehead gash from last year at school registration and it didn’t require a call to 911, an ambulance ride, and stitches. She was also able to walk around and hold the frozen peas on her head by herself so that I could drive her to the emergency room.
The bad news was that surgical glue wasn’t going to work and it required two staples.
The good news was that we got in and out in an hour and she didn’t have a concussion.
The bad news was that those staples hurt. A lot.
The good news was that I didn’t cry at all and I wasn’t even shaken up by the whole thing so I was able to think clearly and I didn’t panic.
The bad news was, youngest daughter cried piercing cries for 15 minutes after the staples went in, though not quite as bad as the blood curdling screams of my middle daughter when the doctor got near her with the tube of surgical glue (middle daughter has sensory issues which caused MAJOR meltdowns).
It’s been a hard week.
My ears still hurt.
And tomorrow we go to Mrs. Parker’s wake.
It’s going to end hard too.
November 30th, 2013:
I am struck with the juxtaposition of events during that week. In addition to the death and wake of Mrs. Parker, I had my first job interview in 8 years, and we had to take my youngest to the ER. We all know Life doesn’t stop when someone we care about dies. I wish it would a little while so we can process our grief.
I realize that while I have my personal experiences of loss and grieving process, I had no skills in helping my children process their grief and loss. It wasn’t modeled for me as a child. I sat alone, many times, grieving by myself. I was a poor sleeper as death was frequently on my mind from an early age, since I had visited Auschwitz with my grandmother and sisters when we traveled to Poland when I was a 10 year old girl.
As life would have it, besides the death of great-grandparents, we lost not only my daughter’s teacher, but a seven-year old friend of my daughters, too.
I can’t say I’ve gotten better at helping my children process these losses. All I know is that do my best to sit with them while they hurt. To hold them, to cry with them, to be there for them, so they don’t have to be alone while they grieve.
I don’t always know how best to meet Life while I grieve. I muddle along as best I can. I wished there was a better way. Well, let me amend that. I guess there IS a better way: living in the Now, and understanding that the only certainty in life is its uncertainty and everything is impermanent and compassionate detachment while realizing we are all connected is key.
Letting go has not been my strong suit. As someone who loves writing, I cling to my memories, both good and bad. Unfortunately, this has the side effect of weighing me down. I’m growing weary because I am always holding on to my memories. Though, there are bright and shiny moments of the unbearable lightness of being when I set my burden down and I forget the broken road behind me.
I wanted to close this post with one of my most favorite songs
And while we all should live like we are dying, the reality is, we have been dying since the moment we are born. I think we should teach our children how precious and how brief the time between the first and the last breath really is. And, no, I have NO idea how to teach that to my daughters.
Suggestions would be most welcome.