Yesterday was the first day of school for our daughter Jessie. So much eagerness, excitement, and anxiety filled the days, hours, and seconds leading up to the moment our little lady walked through the door of her new classroom with an unknown teacher; she was ready to engage all the unfamiliarness of third grade.
Of course, when I stood at that same door six hours later, waiting for Jessie to emerge, I was filled with a thousand questions and more parental curiosity than an eight-year-old usually appreciates. I was pleased to see her appear in the doorway with a grin on her face and a spring in her step, but as I inquisitively peppered her with questions, it indeed yielded limited responses. However, in the unfolding of the afternoon, details of her experience spontaneously erupted from her lips as she was personally reflecting on all that had occurred during her day (My girl loves school!).
My ladybug discussed the other kids in her class, her new schedule, how she was somehow the only child without a pencil box (although to my credit “pencil box” was not on the school supply list), how she won Get-To-Know-One-Another BINGO (she’s competitive like her parents), how her teacher has high expectations of her students (yay!), and how third graders get to play on the “hardy court” for tether ball.
She was bursting with unsolicited details, spilling open with enthusiasm throughout the afternoon and into the evening. However, on our drive to ballet class, she was a little more solemn as she began to share about another experience from her day.
“Mommy, the teacher was playing the ‘Stand Up’ game where she asked a question and you were supposed to stand up if the answer was yes,” my little lady explained.
“Uh, huh?” I acknowledged, wondering what was coming next.
“She started asking the class about siblings.” I felt my chest tighten as she continued, “First, Mrs. L asked people to stand if they were an only child,” she reflected with sadness in her voice. “I didn’t want to stand. It didn’t seem right since I have a brother. But I knew what was coming next and I didn’t know what to do?” The anxiety of the situation, as she shared it, felt as raw to me as it likely was to her while she experienced it. I listened intently.
“Then she asked people to stand if they had a brother.” I had tears pooling in my eyes. Jessie continued, “I paused for a few seconds and then decided to get on my knees. I didn’t feel like I could stand…but I didn’t want to stay seated either. So all I thought to do was be half-standing.” I was surprised, and even impressed by her creative response.
“But then Mrs. L asked me in front of everyone, ‘Are you standing or sitting?’” It seemed Jessie felt a little sheepish about the teacher’s question, but I’m sure Mrs. L had no idea what was coming next.
“I told her, ‘I lost my brother. He died.’”
Knowing many people struggle with how to navigate expressions of loss and picturing this happening in front of Jessie’s entire class, I protectively asked, “How did Mrs. L respond?”
“It was fine, mama,” Jessie reassured me, “Mrs. L was sensitive and said I could choose to do what was most comfortable.”
I didn’t realize I had been holding my breath until I audibly exhaled.
My little girl further explained, “And I kept from crying because I don’t really like crying at school.”
“I understand, Jessie. You handled the situation so beautifully and maturely. I think you did it even better than I could have,” I affirmed, recognizing Jessie, at the ripe age of eight, had faced one of the most common conundrums of loss.
It is challenging to know how to socially navigate sharing loss. With every new setting and new relationship, there is a delicate balance of openness versus social suitability. Expressing loss can create tremendous social awkwardness, but it’s often central to authentically sharing our experience. Communicating loss can elicit unanticipated emotions, abruptly reshape the direction of a conversation, or induce unpredictable and sometimes hurtful responses. It’s a rocky path to traverse and even with the most careful navigator it can still go terribly wrong…because every response and every situation is so different.
Not only am I proud of Jessie and the way she expressed herself, but I’m also grateful to her teacher, Mrs. L, for her warm and compassionate response.