Jump to content
Grief Healing Discussion Groups

Graduation Day

Recommended Posts


Today was graduation day at the high school Jane and I have taught at for parts of four decades. It was the last time i will be there as a teacher. My last day is Thursday. Jane and I had planned to retire this year. For me, including time as a substitute, next week will conclude 35 years in classrooms--27 in this one. For Jane, this would have been her 31st year--all in the same building.

As I stood in the hallway waiting for the teachers to line up to enter the auditorium together i found the emotions nearly overwhelming. I teared up several times just standing there in the lobby. But I was fine when we entered to sit down.

Then the speeches began. The salutatarian talked about Jane and what her loss had meant to all of them. The principal talked about how Jane's illness and death had shaped the year. The superintendent recited a poem he had written for the students about graduation, but the reprise--about how we had hoped to continue their journey with them, stabbed me through the heart. The class president talked about how Jane's death had taken a part of my heart--and how her death had affected them as a class--and ended with the phrase she gave her students every time they wanted to give up: We are not wimps, we are Wildcats. One of the kids called her among the best teachers she had ever had by far. i could not have held back the tears even if i had tried. A friend at the far end of the row said she had looked over at me several times--worried about how i was handling this since she was reduced to tears three separate times. After the ceremony, a number of kids i did not even know--at least not in terms of having them in class--came up to me and thanked me for being a role model for them because of how I had handled myself during her illness and after her death.

Then it was time for me to go. I had started to walk to my car when i heard my editor in chief calling to me. She caught up to me and handed me a lei made out of fabric. Someone had flown out from Hawaii to see her graduate and had made everyone leis on the flight--including one for me.

There was a get together for teachers at another teacher's house, but i did not want to be there. i had some errands to run--and as a friend said, there were other things that needed to be done this weekend. The Greater Fall River Relay for Life is Friday and there were some things i needed to pick up for that. While i was out I found some green thumb specials Jane would not have been able to walk away from--including some wave petunias at less than half price. I bought them and will have to find time to pot them up tomorrow morning. My in-laws are coming for the annual Father's Day cookout. I planted some perennials in one of the beds i am going to expand into a memorial garden for Jane later this summer. I put in some glads and some dahlias and some marigolds in the cutting garden. I refilled the hummingbird feeders and the bird feeder the other birds ravage on a daily basis--and watched a robin use the back of the vegetable garden where there is some dried grass as his personal Home Depot. I watched him fly into a neighbor's yard and into a shrub where he is building a nest.

Jane and i sometimes called graduation day the day we kicked the baby birds out of the nest. It doesn't sound very nurturing, but letting go is the only way we could ensure their growth would not be stunted. We both encouraged kids to go away to school because that way they would be away from both parents and friends and would be free to grow into the person they wanted to be rather than the person their friends and parents wanted them to remain.

Today, I feel like the bird that has been kicked out of the nest. It hurts like hell. But a part of me knows that it is time for me to grow in a new way. There are things i have learned in this last year--about myself, about my friends, about my past--that only something this traumatic could teach me. But god how i hate the price of that knowledge. I remember the days before Jane and i met--how isolated and alone I was. i had given up on love. I had given up on ever finding anyone who could make me want to sing again--dance again--live again. I was so close to turning into someone who was just passing through life on his way to death.

Jane gave me my life back. She said I gave her hers back--that there was no joy in her life before we met--and that our 21 years of marriage had made her a better person. I cannot speak to that. i only know that I am a far better person because of the life we lived together--and i hope that the same was true for her.

Now i am alone again. But i will not simply wait for death. Death will come when it comes--and i will fight dirty to keep living. Not because i do not miss my wife and do not wish we were still together, but because there is more to do with this life than waiting for death.

Near the end of my time after graduation congratulating kids, one of my students--a kid i met just five months ago came up to me. "Thank you," he said, "for seeing the person in me that i didn't see and helping me realize that person exists and matters."

That is the work my wife and i were born to do. And while i will no longer do that work with high school students, I will continue to do it in other places and in other ways. There is other work that needs doing. As I said to a parent this week, the only thing i am really doing is giving up teaching high school kids. I am just moving into a different line of work--work that needs to be done every bit as much as teaching kids.

There is a story that regularly makes the rounds in some Christian circles. A man has died and finds himself on a beach with Christ. He looks back along the beach and sees two sets of footsteps covering most of the beach. He knows that those footprints mark the idea that Christ was with him throughout his life. Then he sees some sections where there are only one set of footprints. He turns to Christ and says, where were you in those times--why did you leave me alone? And Christ looks at him and says, I never left you. Those are the places i carried you.

I am not a traditional Christian. I am not a traditional anything. My grandfather told me at a very young age that i would have to find my own path. Jane and i were similar in that respect: we were both doomed to find our own paths. We walked together in our bodies in this lifetime for 21 years. There were times she carried me and times i carried her. And their were times our God carried us both. But God only carries us when we truly need to be carried.(S)he is a caring parent, but one who knows that sometimes, in order to grow, we have to be left alone--or at least have the illusion that we are alone. Sometimes the baby birds have to fly on their own if they are ever going to mature into adult creatures capable of carrying the load they need to carry.

Jane is still with me. A friend asked me before we walked into the auditorium if I were going to be able to get through this. I told him i was carrying two souls in this body today--that is how close she felt to me. Sometimes she is more distant. Sometimes it feels as though she is not there at all. Then i realize that she is giving me the space to grow--to fly on my own--but that she and our deity are watching that flight and will catch me if I fall. I am like an infant in this new world--as she is like an infant herself in the new world she has awakened in. Each day we both try to walk--and gradually we will reach the point that we can indeed walk again--independent of each other--but longing for the return of that connection which has always sustained us.

In the interim, there is much for us to learn. For me, among the new teachers are the people in this group. I listen to what you say and what you think and observe what you do. From each of these things I learn about this new place I must reside for a time. But every dream, every experience--every solo trip to the supermarket--has things in it that force me to learn. That is the point to human life--to learn that which we cannot learn as creatures of pure spirit. As Thoreau and Emerson say repeatedly in their essays on Transcendentalism, our souls descend to meet. There are things we can only learn in this form--and one of those things is dealing with death--both as the one who dies and as the one who lives.

Buddhists say that life is suffering--and they are right. But life is also joy. It is how we evolve as spiritual beings--and it is only through living in the physical world that that evolution takes place. And that evolution advances through both joy and suffering. I learn from failure and from pain--but I also learn through success and through pleasure. There has to be a balance between the two.

Jane spoke the truth when she said our bodies are only vessels for our souls to journey in. But the soul loves the body--and the soul and body love the company of other souls and bodies. If the body were merely a vessel, we would not grieve those we lose. Knowing that we are creatures of pure spirit we would know that the body is of no consequence. But we are not creatures of pure spirit and when the bodies of those we love die we mourn the loss of that body even if we know the soul is immortal. Like the woman whose son is in Afghanistan, we miss the physical presence of our beloved just as much as we miss their spirits.

So though we would like to embrace the joy implicit in the idea of the immortality of the soul--that our loved ones continue without us in a world free of the suffering that human life requires--and know that we should rejoice in their joy at being in that better place--they do so without the bodies that we have grown to love and embrace every bit as much as we love and embrace their souls. Even the promise that we will eventually be rejoined in that spiritual world does not do much to ease the pain of that loss. The reality is that when we see them again they will either be in a purely spiritual form--or will inhabit a new body that we may not recognize them in.

The loss is real. the pain is real. The sorrow is real. But what we do with those things matters. Do we learn from them? Or do we get lost in them? Sometimes getting lost in those feelings is a necessary part of the learning process. Sometimes, however, it is not. Sometimes we get caught up in the cycle of pain and can find no way out. The fear, the hurt, the loss overwhelm us and we lose all concept of who we were, who we are, and who we are becoming. When grief defines us entirely we need that divine hand to lift us from our grief and carry us the distance that has to be covered to lessen the pain to the point we can walk on our own again.

But the existence of that divine hand does not relieve us of the responsibility of trying to walk--of trying to work our way through the grief. Eventually that divinity wants us to be able to walk again on our own--and may set us down and insist we try to walk before we believe we are ready. We have to recognize that we are children in this place--and that the adult--God, if you will--may know better than we do what we need to be doing in order to move forward. My students constantly whine about the amount of work I require of them--they want to read in class, write in class, talk about anything other than the book at hand in class. My job as teacher is to push them forward. i nurture them when that seems the right thing to do, but sometimes I have to put them on their own if they are going to mature as readers, writers, and thinkers. My students may like other teachers more, but i did not come into this profession to be liked--I came into this profession to move people's minds forward.

God works in the same way. We are not always prepared for what gets placed before us. I was certainly not ready to deal with Jane's death. But i have to deal with the fact of her absence--the fact of my enormous loss. I do not get to choose what happens to me any more than my students get to choose the books we read or the essays they need to write. i have to face the reality of this new life. It is not easy, but it is what is required, Like a classroom full of students, we try to help each other figure out how to answer the questions and problems the deity puts in front of us, but ultimately we face the final tests alone. We have collective work to do, but we are individually responsible for what we do with the life we are given.

We are like the three servants in the parable: We have been given a number of talents to do with as we will. But when the master returns we have to give an accounting of what we have done with the coin. If we have done nothing but bury ourselves in our grief that accounting will not go well for us. But if we have worked to overcome that pain--have worked to use the knowledge we have gleaned to help others in their grief--have learned the lessons that grief exists to teach us--then we will become graduates of this school and be ready to take on the greater tasks that lie ahead of us--if not in this life then in the next.

We have to be patient with ourselves. That knowledge and wisdom will not come in a day or a week or a month or a year. It will come in its own time. We cannot speed up the process any more than an infant can speed up the rate at which it learns to walk--no matte how much it wants to. We have to crawl before we can walk--and move on our bellies like a reptile before we can even crawl. We will weep. We will be angry. We will be frustrated. But each day will bring with it new knowledge, new hope, and new understanding. We will get through this.

Our advantage here is that we have a whole group of us experiencing the same thing. The teacher has told us--even encouraged us--to share our notes and our knowledge and experiences and our observations. Together, we are stronger than we are alone. We will get through this.

I know that once again I have written too much. i know, that once again, I've gone too far. I know, too, now this is finished, that it could as easily be a reply on What I have learned. But it did not start out that way. It is only through writing that I discover what it is I think and what it is I believe.

My god it is 12:30 and i promised myself an early night.




Link to comment
Share on other sites


I'm sure this is a very poignant time for you...a time of remembering and also a time for realizing that it's a new chapter, one that may contain a lot of unknowns.

I think the story about Jesus' footsteps is something we all realize...later. At the time, when we're in the middle of a hard place, we may not realize it, but it's in looking back that we can see he's carried us.

Good luck as you embark on this new part of your journey...I am sure you will make the next part count for some very good things as well.


Link to comment
Share on other sites

Harry, I can only imagine how bittersweet it was to attend that graduation...so much to handle emotionally...whew! I was so impressed with what you wrote, I saved it in my grief file in Word. I especially liked that you were "carrying two souls in your body". I feel that way a lot. I am glad you are going to continue to be out there for teens or whoever with your wisdom and kindness. Jane is smiling down on you...I just know it. To be robbed of her company as you begin this new chapter in your life is especially difficult...I know you two had dreams and plans for these years as did Bill and I. I hold you in the light. Mary

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...