On a mid-November night in 1992, I received a phone call from Dick Zajchowski, the Head of my school. One of my students, Dana, ten years old, had been hit by a van while crossing a busy road through that wet and foggy night. She was badly hurt; she had been taken by helicopter to the teaching hospital nearby; nobody knew whether she could recover.
Dana lasted about ten days, in a coma from which she never emerged, although there were times when she seemed to lift, and our hopes lifted. When I visited and sat with her, reading aloud to her some of the book we were sharing in class, I watched the traces on the machines attached to her body. The electronic lines jumped up and down whenever she heard my voice. Was that good? Was that bad?
I had taught Dana for only a few months, but I had known her in the school community since she was very small. Her older sister, Megan, was also in my class. Dana, so vivid, so full of life, full of opinions, full of energy—how could she not survive?
When I cleaned out my desk this spring, I found the small box made of popsicle sticks, full of tiny things kids wanted me to take to Dana in the hospital when—we held on, so hard, to the idea of ‟when”—she woke up: braided wristbands, a tiny troll with long magenta hair, small folded notes.
But the injury to her brain was too severe. Here’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a teacher: calling the families of my students, family by family, to tell them that all of us working and wishing, all of us folding small paper origami cranes, hoping to save Dana–all of us had to let all that go. She had gone from us.
Dana and Megan’s parents knew immediately that they would need to find counseling to help Megan. Some of her healing happened out of our sight, though with all of our thoughts and prayers.
Meanwhile, a wonderful grief counselor visited the school to help the faculty help the other kids. Wisely, Dick Zajchowski arranged for Maria, the grief counselor, to come into my own class to work with us directly. She talked us through the stages of grief as she had come to understand them.
- First, we each needed just to tell our individual versions of how it had happened, or how the news had happened to each of us.
- Then we needed to confess and work through the universal inclination to blame ourselves, irrationally.
- We needed to share memories and images of Dana, as she lived.
- Finally we needed to share our ideas about ways we would carry her forward.
It was true: every single child needed to tell both how he or she imagined the event of the accident, and how his or her parent had relayed the news. One child wished he’d told Dana that the movie she was going to see was a waste of time; if he had, she wouldn’t have been crossing that street. I myself had thought, ‟If only I’d assigned more homework that night…” But when I said that out loud, one of the students said, ‟No, that wouldn’t have stopped her…” All of us worked together to face the truth: this was something we couldn’t have controlled, and didn’t.
One child felt Dana’s death as a blow to his own body. He became physically ill whenever we talked about her in any way, and several times had to go home. Still, it was important for us to talk about Dana, not too much, but enough. We couldn’t just dodge what had happened. I struggled to find the right balance.
One girl, Kerry, seemed to have no defense, no delaying numbness, no way to hide from the events or her feelings about them. Again and again, even when we were doing something with no direct relation to Dana’s death, Kerry broke down and cried. But she was touchingly brave in facing and experiencing those feelings and letting them be, crying and then recovering, moving forward. Each time, I felt her carry the rest of us with her.
Whatever we felt, and however we felt it or expressed it, each of us was a resource to the others.
Months went by. I had known enough of other griefs to recognize, in myself, the feeling of trying to walk underwater; a deep weariness. Maria, the grief counselor, had told me to expect some regression from the kids: neediness, crabbiness, helplessness. All that happened. No way out but through.
At home, I worked on a poem based on Maria’s four stages of grief. That helped me move forward, in the way Kerry’s tears had helped her. In school, off and on, I worked with individual kids to write their own letters to Dana, or short accounts of what had happened.
When our class picture was taken, one of the girls held a photo of Dana.
Late that spring, Dick asked me to lead the rest of the faculty in writing through that same sequence of parts, the stages of grief, which Maria had explained to us and which I had used in my own poem. Like so much about that whole chapter in my teaching, the memory of my colleagues, crying as they wrote, will never leave me–and I will always be grateful to Dick for discerning, step by step, how our mutual caring could help each of us.
Over the next year, in Dana’s memory, her parents and many of their friends donated the seed money for a new wing to our school. On the wall in that hallway, a painting shows her grinning her inimitable grin, holding one of the cranes we had folded in hope for her.
Maria, the grief counselor, said that the children who’d been close to Dana could not truly process their shock and loss right away. At ten, or even at twelve, they were too young. ‟Every transition they make,” she said, ‟they will come back to process it again. With any luck they’ll stay in touch with each other, and do some of that together.”
In fact, many of those students have stayed in touch. Many of them, including both Megan and Kerry, are my own Facebook friends. In a way especially needed, somehow, I treasure every smiling photograph they post.