Advice for the Grieving Teacher
Losing a loved one is one of the most stressful and devastating experiences of life. Grief can consume us and exhaust us for days, weeks and months. Going through loss when you are a teacher has its own set of unique challenges. Teaching is stressful by itself, so when you add the extra layer of loss, it can seem unbearable for a teacher to want to return to the classroom and face 25+ children every day.
I understand this feeling all too well. I lost both of my brothers within five years of each other. We lost Curt, my oldest brother, in 2012 (while I was a 5th grade teacher) and my brother, Kelly in 2017 (when I was working at Discovery Education). Going through such hard loss, one right after the other has taught me so much about life and helping others through grief.
In podcast episode #29: The Grieving Teacher, I talk about how you can get through loss and grief when you are a teacher. Going back to the classroom after you experience loss can be challenging. Here are my 3 Pieces of advice to help you through the grief.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the 5 Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This theory helps all of us have common language around grief, but remember that the stages of grief are not a linear, step-by-step experience. You don’t go through these stages one after another. Grief is different for every single person and grief changes over time. Take time to read and educate yourself about grief - I recommend the What’s Your Grief Podcast as a resource to get you started. Identifying and understanding your feelings can help you process your loss as well as communicate your needs to others.
Kids Will Push You Into Tomorrow
Many times when people experience loss, they want to crawl into a hole and isolate themselves. But when you are a teacher you are expected to go back to work rather quickly. Going back to the classroom after losing Curt was something I was dreading. I was so tired. I was sad. I barely had anything to give my own two young children, so how was I going to give to a classroom of 32 students…
But guess what? Something magical happened when I returned to school. My class - those 5th graders, they pushed me into tomorrow. Once I got back to school, they gave my life structure and purpose. They needed me. They loved me. They missed me. They hugged me. They made me laugh - they said crazy things such as “I lost my cat, I know how you feel”.
They saw me cry. They saw me struggle. I talked to them about my grief. I thanked them for being in my life. I had such a special bond with that class...those little people helped me come to life again. Lean into your students and let them help you come back to life. If you let them in, they will push you into tomorrow.
Find Your People
Half way through episode #39, I share the story about how one of my teacher colleagues disappointed me after Curt passed away. Here is the truth: people at work are going to let you down. There are people that are completely paralyzed by death and so uncomfortable by the thought of speaking to a grieving colleague that they do nothing. Don’t waste your time thinking about the people that do nothing. Focus on the people you can count on at work, because you are going to need them. You are going to need them for hundreds of reasons and for a long time.
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to figure out the colleagues who will support you and then communicate your needs to them. Simply say “I’m going to need you. I trust you and I’m going to need your help to make it through this.” or you can give specific examples of you what you need. People so badly want to help in your time of need, so use them and ask for help.
A final thought about your support system - you may be surprised who shows up during this time of need. As I connect with teachers under 40 who have experienced grief while teaching, there is a common theme. Teachers that had a little more life experience under their belt (age 40+) were the most brave, supportive and comforting after our return to work. They were the ones who brought us lunch, covered our class so we could have an extra prep and simply hugged us when we needed it. I share this because I want you to have an open heart if you are a young teacher. Lean on those of us that have faced a few tough things in our life - you may earn a new, wise friend out of your hardship.
I invite you to listen to episode #39: The Grieving Teacher. I share out even more detail on how you can make it through loss as a teacher. In episode #40: Supporting the Grieving Teacher, I will discuss how schools can support grieving teachers.
For all of you going through loss, I know first hand how hard it will be. You’ll never be the same again, but I can promise you that you will find your new normal.