It’s six o’clock on Monday morning Feb. 11th and I’m just shuffling off to the shower when I hear my phone receive a text message. It is from a teacher at my son’s former elementary school. Apparently, one of her fourth graders hadn’t come to school on Friday so she sent a text to the student’s mother to see if everything was all right. Around noon the teacher received a text back from her student saying that she couldn’t wake her mama up that morning and so she couldn’t come to school. Her mama, it turns out, had died in her sleep. The student would, of course, be out of school most of the week. But would I come, the teacher asked, and speak to her class to help them begin processing this news about their classmate and friend?
It has not escaped my attention that sitting alongside one another this week are Ash Wednesday, the day that begins the liturgical season of Lent when Christians all over the world contemplate the fragility and impermanence of life, and St. Valentine’s Day, the day set aside to celebrate love. Hearts and ashes. Grief and love. Sorrow and joy. Hand in hand.
I arrived at the school and the teacher, her eyes red and swollen, greeted me with a big, warm hug.
Thank you for coming, she said. I knew you would help us.
In the classroom were about thirty boys and girls talking, laughing, and wiggling; most of them oblivious that anything might be wrong. One or two of the girls, probably her closest friends, looked like they had been crying. A few worried looking mothers lined the back wall.
Boys and girls! said the teacher. May I have your attention! This is Mrs. McCranie and she has something she needs to tell you.
I had a slight moment of panic as I realized that it was up to me to actually break this news to these nine and ten year old children for whom the loss of a mother would likely be among the worst things they could think of. Taking a deep breath I made my way to the front of the room, turned to look at all those open, trusting, upturned faces and began.
I’m so sorry to tell you that your friend’s mama died on Friday. I tried to be honest without causing them alarm.
Sometimes, I said, although thankfully, not often, mothers die when they are young and when their children are young, and when that happens it is very sad.
Because you see your mother every day! one little boy volunteered.
That’s right, I said, and so your friend will feel sad for a long time and she will miss her mother so much. The most important thing you can do is to be a true friend to her. What are ways to be a true friend?
Hands shot up all over the room.
We could write her a card, said one.
We could call her after school, said another.
We could tell her that we are so sorry for her loss, said still another.
And then came the stories, one after the other, a flood of stories of love and grief: of grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and pets they knew who had died. We, too, know this dance of loss and love, of hearts and ashes, they seemed to be saying.
Everything has a beginning and an ending, said a shy boy in the corner.
When I was five, a small, dark haired boy up front said slowly, my daddy died.
I felt my heart swell with pride at their bravery, their honesty, their generosity of spirit in wanting to understand and share in their friend’s pain, to lighten her load. I reminded them, reminded myself, to hug the people we love a little tighter, to tell them that we love them, to be kind to each other.
Hearts and ashes. Grief and love. Sorrow and joy. Hand in hand, each intensifying the other, calling out to us that life is precious and uncertain…and that our love for each other is what makes it worthwhile.
…Beautiful souls come forward and form the safety net of love that supports me on the way. Perhaps no single act is more consequential than reaching out to such a community and staying open to the healing love it offers. It is love reaching out to encourage the emergence of greater love. It reminds me of times when I’ve looked up into the skies and found a particularly bright constellation, a pattern of light shining without expectation or demand. A glow of stars that is simply there. And I know that unconditional love, reaching out heart to heart, is like that bridge of stars.
What reminds you of both the impermanence of life and the fierce tenderness of love?
How can you be part of a “safety net of love” for someone in your life?
Hospice Austin’s Director of Volunteer and Bereavement Services