Comforting words often disappear
By George Valadie
April 26, 2013
I’ve never learned what to say.
And let me just say, I’ve gone back and checked, it wasn’t in my job description. And I have no memory of having studied it in any of my education classes either.
His mom couldn’t even make the phone call herself. But then who could blame her. Instead we got the news from the mom’s best friend, who called our school office to break the sadness.
Billy, a student sitting in one of our classrooms, had just lost his father. He just didn’t know it yet. A quite unexpected heart attack. I’m not sure where ‘out-of-the-blue’ is, but that’s where this one came from. And it got his dad. And then took him away.
The lady on the phone told us that her own husband had already been to the hospital, and was now on the way to our school. As close family friend, he had the misfortune of being the appointed person, assigned to break the news to Billy. And could we call him to my office?
Father and son had been close; that hunting and fishing kinda close that some dads get to share with their boys. He was going to be missed a lot.
But they wanted me to be there too, to do and say what I could. He didn’t know exactly what to say, nor did I. But together we were going to try to get a teenager through the shock of his young life.
Staff meeting at 8:30; tech meeting at 9:00; budgets at 10. Tell a kid he lost his dad at 10:55.
I’m making this sound like it was a bad day for me, but it could never compare to what was it like for them.
The weekend after that, another call came in – this one from one of our teachers. He was letting me know that we had lost a recent alum.
He had been murdered while taking out the after-midnight garbage at his job. Stabbed to death. Not one of the more frequent young person car wrecks. No apparent reason either.
The kid had been a musician, a band member, a friend. He had graduated so recently that half our kids knew him. The others know his sister - still in our school, only weeks away from graduating with her friends.
His buddies were a wreck; hers were a mess. The teachers were struggling; the counselors worked overtime. And no one’s invented a word yet to describe what his parents were feeling.
We had lost students before; we’ve lost alums too; but none had ever left at the hands of such violence.
Perhaps that made it worse because it’s so easy to imagine. After all, we’ve all had college jobs (our children will too) and we’ve all been assigned the hourly-pay grunt work that comes with it.
“And before you clock out, be sure to take that trash out to the dumpster.” It’s just that we always got to clock back in. He did not.
Then there came a third.
Two weekends later, one of our moms passed away after a lengthy battle. Only forty-six, she left a husband and three teenagers, two of which are ours.
She had seemingly recovered from an October surgery giving us all sorts of hope. But her teenage cancer treatment had weakened her heart which finally reared its head and no one’s lungs can take that much fluid.
Three strikes took her out – not to mention what it did to her spouse and three kids. I’ve never learned what to say. Not sure who has, really.
It made me recall when my own dad passed away; I was sixteen. I recall my mom came by school to tell me; we sat in the cafeteria. He’d been sick for some time but the finality of it all might have been the biggest shock.
Oddly, I felt as if I needed to comfort her as she wondered aloud if she could raise four kids on her own. I didn’t know what to say then either. Not technically perhaps, but I knew she’d been doing that all her life. And I told her so.
I doubt she was comforted at all. But it was all I had. Mostly I remember wanting as much real-life normalcy as possible, but maybe that was the teenager in me.
But these days when I go to visit, to say hello, to express condolences – I feel like I’m just one of many forcing families to re-visit their sadness to the next and the next and the next person in line.
Which I guess is why I always leave feeling as if they were somehow comforting me. Seems like a lot to put on people who have just been through so much.
I’ve never learned what to say.
Especially when it involves kids. But I seem to be getting more practice than I’d like.
Dear God – We believe the souls of the dead are where we’d someday like to be. You’d think we’d be celebrating their good fortune. Why doesn’t it seem that way? - Amen.
(George Valadie is president of St. Benedict at Auburndale School in Cordova, Tenn.)