Dealing with Family Tragedy and Potential Loss

As an English teacher, one of the biggest, most prevalent themes in literature is death and tragedy. My 7th graders have read The Pearl, in which the protagonist’s baby boy is shot and killed. They have read Twelfth Night, in which a pair of twins think each other are drowned. In Animal Farm, their favorite character, Boxer the horse, was sent to the slaughter house after his lung collapsed. In 8th grade, Macbeth is full of death and tragedy. My students hated that their favorite character in The Open Boat didn’t make it to shore. They were upset that Tom Robinson never got justice or freedom in To Kill A Mockingbird. In 9th grade, they witness unbelievable strife and demonetization in a bunch of children in Lord of the Flies, as well as cruel murder in Jekyll and Hyde, and now are reading Hamlet (must I say more?).
I have been very blessed in my life when it comes to death and tragedy. True, I have had great-aunts and uncles pass away due to old age, but I never really knew them all that well. But, as a teacher, I am surrounded by strife that my students have to go through. Many have already missed a day to go to a grandparent’s funeral. Some have asked to go to the bathroom numerous times to dry their tears. 

But, I have one student who continues to amaze me with her feat of strength and bravery. Her mother has cancer and has been given a deadline. Now, an average 7th grader would show their emotions–act out (not necessarily in a bad way, but in a way you could tell something was wrong). Grades would drop, participation and socializing would fall, their face would be the emotional giveaway, there would be days they were absent. Not this girl. Not her siblings. They have not missed a day at all this year. My principal told me that last year when their grandma died, they only missed half a school day for the funeral. Even when their mom was having brain surgery to try to help the cancer, they still went to school. She has straight A’s. She never skips a beat–participation is getting stronger and more constant, she still puts 100% effort in every assignment she does. I see smiles and laughs coming from her often. I wondered if she was just trying to hide her emotions (whereas I wear mine on my sleeve). My principal told me the mom had been fighting cancer for years and has been given numerous deadlines, so the girls have grown up with this as almost a fact of life. But, still. 

Right now, my 7th graders are writing short stories, and she has decided to write her about a young junior high girl whose mom dies of cancer and how she handles it. I am so glad that she has decided to write about this. Writing is a great therapy, a way to express the emotions you are feeling and a way to relieve pain. I am so glad that she is willing to share her apprehension and fear with me in this way and that she is allowing herself this “mourning” in a sense.

It has gotten me thinking about the scariest time in my life. My mom is a cancer survivor. When I was very young, she was diagnosed with melanoma in her right eye. Thankfully, it was caught very early and she was able to have a successful surgery that got rid of the cancer, but at the price of the color and sight of her right eye. I was too young to remember anything but my mom lying in a dark room and my dad getting me a big, soft pretzel in Philadelphia–it was a vacation to me.

However, that isn’t the end of the story. My freshman year of high school, my dad was sent to Iraq. My mom’s eye started to have a reaction–it wasn’t cancer, thankfully, but it was after effects of the radiation and surgery. Her eye would swell and become so painful, she wasn’t able to get out of bed. I remember her crying and telling me that it was so painful sometimes that she thought she was going to die. Now, as a 14 year old, those were scary words. I was the oldest and stayed home some days to take care of her and my siblings. But, I was always nervous for the sake of my mom’s health, especially because my dad couldn’t be there to help her.
That memory also got me thinking. Seeing how strong and vigilant my student is staying in school, I wonder if it is her mother’s wish for her that she is complying with. So, I wanted to know my mom’s side of the story when this happened to her:

When I become ill while Tayler’s dad was deployed with the Marine Corps in Iraq, I DID worry about my kids.  I worried, with my husband gone, who would care for them because I was so sick and in such excruciating pain that I was unable to care for them myself. But that worry was more along the lines of their emotional well-being and the basics like meals, bathtime and general needs being met, rather than whether or not they were keeping up with their studies.

I felt guilty for needing to ask my older girls (Tayler, age 14 at the time, and Madison, age 11) to help out with bathing and feeding their younger siblings as well as making meals and general housecleaning tasks.  But, I absolutely needed them!  We lived away from extended family, and although we had neighbors and friends who helped with carpooling and even brought in some meals, I needed help.  

However, although I felt guilty for needing this above-and-beyond help from my kids, I was also extremely proud of my girls (and especially Tayler) for being able to step up and take care of things.  In fact, I never had to worry for one minute about the younger kids having their needs met.  

In regards to how I felt about their studies and the other things going on in their lives, I have pretty much always just wanted my kids to do their best…whatever that meant.  And I have always tried to take their mental/emotional stress in to account when considering this.  I have really awesome and talented kids who do really well in school.  But sometimes, other challenges outside of school just make it really hard to stay vigilant and highly focused.  I know this, and so frankly, during that time, I just didn’t really care about the schoolwork (although amazingly, they all kept up and did really great!).

The truth for me is that I was suffering so intensely during that short period of time that my thoughts progressed from “are my kids okay?” to “who is going to take care of my kids?” to “I need to be making arrangements for my kids” to “I can’t even think about that…someone will take care of them…they’ll be okay”.

I think families tend to handle stressful situations in different ways.  Our family, generally, as Tayler mentioned, tends to wear our emotions on our sleeves.  We are open with expressing pretty much how we feel all the time…if we love you: you know it; if we are angry: you know it; if we are sick or stressed: you know it; if we are happy and having a good time: you will definitely know it!

My kids excel at pulling together with our family when challenging times arise…I couldn’t be more proud of them.  

I hope Tayler’s student and her family are working through their emotions.  Chronic illness within a family can be emotionally draining.  I can’t imagine what it must feel like either as a mother, or as a daughter, to be faced with terminal illness and impending death.  I am extremely close to my own mom as well as my girls (and son). And since everyone does handle things differently, I hope that staying strong in school is a positive thing in her student’s families lives.  I would probably selfishly want to have my kids around as much as possible.

But what I do continue to take comfort in is knowing that we will continue to be there for each other and I am blessed to have kids who care so much and are always willing to help!

Tayler is a work at home mom. She does free lance articles and dabbles in graphic design and virtual assisting for bloggers. She spent 3 years as a history and English teacher. Her passions are her husband, two children, history, reading, nature, and her Savior, Jesus Christ.