There are very few moments in life when a topic as complex as death can elicit true, gritty emotion, which, if nurtured in the right direction, can lead to real change for the better.
Our culture shies away from discussing death openly. In fact, I fear we fear it. In our deepest of truths, though, we all know that death is a part of life. It will happen, and it’s our job as educators to help children and their families appropriately cope with the reality.
As I work with more and more kids whose academics are suffering because of a death of a parent or a loved one, I realize that in their darkest moments a change for the better can occur. They have witnessed something most children will not be exposed to, and it can rock them to their core negatively or positively. The path of these two choices on how to view death is clearer. It’s our job as teachers and parents to offer guidance on how to use this tragedy as a platform, a motivator, for taking smart chances and making smart choices.
Every one has a different reaction to this shared loss and goes through the steps of grief in their own time: some engage in anxious, controlling behaviors trying to put the pieces of the world they once knew back together again, and others shut the world out for fear of feeling powerless. Kids are smart though and they have a sixth sense about these things, especially when they’re younger. We don’t need to “baby” them by sweeping a loss under the rug. Instead, death should be a conversation starter– a place to begin talking about how they want to shape their life and their time. What can they do each day to honor the one that is no longer here?
Most recently, I worked with a student whose parent was dying of cancer. The school allowed her to make up a class because her focus was elsewhere, and rightly so. She had a fighting spirit and worked hard on her projects, essays, and tests. Her resilience was a beautiful, joyous glimpse into her future as a prolific writer, a career I’m sure she will be recognized for soon. Although she passed her class and will graduate, there was a sadness behind her smile. Instead of letting it debilitate her though, she chose to use this gut-wrenching experience as a springboard for her life’s work. Sometimes death is the moment that makes us grow from children to adults, and that’s okay.
Death can be a motivator. It makes a family stop, put their routine on hold, and contemplate the moments shared with each other. It makes all of us reevaluate the meaning of our days, and it should make us move forward to bring greater meaning to our tomorrows.