The Empty Chair – For Bridgette, with love

-by Krista Taylor

This post was originally published on May 23, 2016, in memory of the one year anniversary of Bridgette’s passing.  

Our children aren’t supposed to die. Not the ones we nurture within our families, nor the ones we nurture within our classrooms.

It isn’t supposed to happen this way.

I wasn’t supposed to take a phone call while at my husband’s baseball game, telling me that I had lost one of my students – telling me that she had been hit by a car while crossing the street.

I wasn’t supposed to have to turn around within moments and make that same call to share the information with my young colleagues.

I wasn’t supposed to have to clean out her locker.

I wasn’t supposed to have to plan her memorial.

I wasn’t supposed to have to figure out how to honor her empty chair.

I wasn’t supposed to lose her.

But I did – exactly one year ago.

And my experience is not unique.

Every year, there are teachers who have students die. There are students who lose a classmate, and classrooms that become one less.

At Gamble, we experienced this twice last year — once in September and once in May – tragic bookends on a year in the life of a school. At the beginning of the year, we lost Michael due to complications from undiagnosed diabetes, and during the last week of school, we lost Bridgette.

There are no words to describe this situation. It is something I never expected to experience, and something I was entirely unprepared to deal with. I had no idea what to do.

The greatest burden I carried was how to appropriately usher my students through grief and loss. How to honor each of their responses. How to gather them together and help them lean on each other, while simultaneously protecting them from the potential insensitivity of one other. How to explain the depths of our loss without heightening, or conversely, minimizing, their grief. How to plan our days to honor Bridgette’s memory while providing the structure and routine that adolescents crave.   How to be a source of strength and compassion. How to be exactly what each one needed me to be.

That is, of course, not possible. We can only be the best we can be, with the resources and knowledge we possess at the time, but losing a student is perhaps something that we never quite overcome.

I am haunted by these comments made by my colleagues. Each reveals lingering guilt:

“I bet she was wearing those stupid boots that she always wore and could barely walk in. Why didn’t we tell her that she wasn’t allowed to wear them?”

“I don’t think I’ve really gotten over Michael’s death. I keep thinking about the day I sent him home sick with an upset stomach. I should have told his mom to take him straight to the hospital.”

And my own thought, “I couldn’t keep her safe.”

The trauma runs deep.

The night Bridgette died, one of my students called me on my cell phone. I remember the conversation almost verbatim.

“Ms. Taylor, it’s Shauna. Is it true? Is Bridgette really dead?”

“Yes, Shauna, it’s true. I am so sorry.”

“What are we going to do tomorrow, Ms. Taylor?”

“I don’t know yet, but I’m working on it.”

“Can we make posters and stuff like they did for Michael?”

“Yes, of course, Shauna, we can do whatever you need to do.”

“Can we make great, big posters?”

“Yes, you can make posters as big as you want.”

“Ms. Taylor? . . . Are you okay?”

“Yes, Shauna, I’m okay. I love you, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I love you, too, Ms. Taylor.”

Several days later, at Bridgette’s funeral service, I was asked to assist with eulogizing her. Just before I was to speak, one of my students slid up to my pew and said, “Ms. Taylor, we need you out there,” and gestured to the anteroom. I reassured the student that I would go there as soon as I could. After speaking, I slipped out of the chapel. In the foyer, a cluster of students was gathered around Iona who was lying on the floor sobbing. As I calmed her down, I was finally able to make out her words, “Why won’t she open her eyes. She needs to wake up. She just needs to wake up and open her eyes.”

As a teacher, how do you shepherd your students through tragedy?

Certainly, there is more than one way, and assuredly, I didn’t make all the right decisions, but with an absence of resources or experiences, this is what I did. While I wish this situation on no one, if the unthinkable should happen in your classroom, I hope you find this to be a guide:

  • Ensure that you have mental health personnel available to work with students
  • Be together – in our case, we offered the option to have students remain with their community teachers all day long
  • Tell students as much as you know as soon as possible – facts, however painful, are far easier to deal with than imaginings
  • Provide opportunities to honor, reflect, and grieve together
    • We held a community meeting at the start of the school day, which allowed us to share the information we had, and invited students to ask questions, and to share thoughts, concerns, and memories
  • Suspend normal activities and routines
  • Invite students to create a memorial
    • This was particularly powerful for my students as they chose to replicate one of Bridgette’s drawings as a mural above her locker (see above photo)
    • They also made posters, wrote letters,  and helped to plan the school-based ceremony
  • Remember that not all students will grieve in a traditional fashion
    • Some students may need to escape from the intensity of the situation
    • Some students may laugh or make insensitive comments as a coping mechanism – pre-empt this by instructing students about empathy, and reminding them that not everyone deals with upsetting situations the same way
    • Some students may not have known the deceased student very well, and may not feel the need to grieve
      • After an initial meeting spent together, some students chose the option to watch a reflective movie, rather than participate in memorial activities all day long
      • Other students chose physical work – digging the hole for our memorial tree
  • Find a support system – remember that you are grieving, too, and that you can’t do it alone. Lean on your colleagues, and seek out others who can guide you through the process and through your own sorrow
  • You will, of course, have to resume a normal routine within a day or so, but be prepared to have the loss continue to need to be addressed periodically for a year or more.

This year at fall camp, as we walked up the trail, underneath a starlit sky, to prepare for the initiation ceremony conducted by the 8th graders, Iona slipped her hand into mine, and wistfully proclaimed, “Oh, Ms. Taylor, Bridgette would have just loved this.”

Yes, Iona, Bridgette would have just loved this.

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Empty Chair – For Bridgette, with love

  1. Thank you so much. You were actually on my mind this morning, I was thinking about my gratitudes for the day and what came to mind was how grateful I am that there are teachers like you and Dawnetta in the world.

    A big part of the work that I do is taking people through grief rituals. It is really sad work. I have had to make my own peace with how easy it is for me now after doing so many of them. I just recently took the organization where MarShawn McCarrel (the young man who was a part of the black lives matters movement who took his life at the state capital) worked through their grief ritual and am now preparing to walk this path with a local school that just lost their school nurse through violence.

    I say all of this to say, you did handle it perfect, you were exactly what they needed, and it will continue to shape and grow you all for years to come.

    One of the biggest lies I think we tell about grief is that we all grieve differently. I don’t believe this is true. We all avoid grief differently but the grieving itself is just the feeling of our feeling. You have and continue to make space for that, for yourself and your students. Thank you, this is how we grow emotionally intelligent human beings.

    -Quanita

  2. That is a fascinating insight, Quanita. We found that we had students who wanted every minute to mourn and pay tribute, and others who complained loudly when they got back from lunch, “are we STILL talking about this?” For them we kept the option of following their regular schedule, til they were ready to grieve.

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