After two months out of the classroom, I returned to my thirty-six fifth graders this past week. Just eleven months ago my husband, Jim, was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. He died February 19, 2014 at just 53 years old. Half of my students were looped, and they knew last spring that 'Mr. McConnell was very ill' and that I was taking off a few days a week through the end of the school year to help him 'get well'. What they didn't know was that he had cancer, and during the spring he had three surgeries and almost lost his life twice.
Over the summer and after radiation, his health stabilized and the new school year started with more of a routine. I was out every third Friday for our chemotherapy appointments. I was able to get the same sub, Mr. Ma who grew to know them and their routine. Over Thanksgiving break, my husband Jim's health took a turn for the worse and it was time to explain more about my absences to my students and their parents.
I really did not intend to tell them that day. The kids were making a joke about all the coughing that was going on in the classroom during this particularly bad flu season, and I just lost it. I'd been worried all year about bringing germs home to my immune compromised husband, and here these 10 year old were joking about it. I just started crying in frustration, exhaustion and sadness. So I told them. With tears, they listened to my fifth grade version of our story.
Over Christmas break Jim went back in the hospital with extreme difficulty breathing. I joked how considerate it was of him to be hospitalized again during my time off school. He was put on oxygen and we returned home, just in time for me to go back to school. The students often asked about him, especially after I'd missed a day of class. Some expressed hopes that he would 'get well soon', though I knew in my heart that was not likely to happen.
In the beginning of February, Jim was diagnosed with two extremely nasty opportunistic infections which required IV antibiotics every four hours. I had to take more time off as he was hospitalized and I learned how to administer at home injections. The week before our 'ski week' break, I was only at school one day. True to his form, Jim was admitted to the hospital just two days before the break and he died the Wednesday of ski week, while the kids were on vacation.
Upon their return to school, our principal informed my students of my loss. They sent cards and a poster, 'Get well soon, we miss you'. Some of their parents attended Jim's memorial service. +Kristi Schwiebert is a mentor and friend of mine and her son has been in my class for two years now. She asked him if he wanted to come to Mr. McConnell's service. Kristi's son echoed the fears of many of my kids when he said, "No, I don't want to see Mrs. McConnell so sad." His words touched my heart.
My students were typical kids and were not very well behaved for my long term sub. Fortunately, I teach with some amazing colleagues who helped her through it. After about a month I decided to come back on April 2, 45 days after Jim's death. There is no right time and it would never be easy. But I had a strategy. I'd come back on a Wednesday, a short day, three days before spring break, to ease me and my kids into it. I contacted The Center for Living with Dying to get some ideas for activities to help my students process our shared grief. I contacted our staff and let them know how fragile I was and to not look at me with those sad, I'm sorry eyes before I had to see my kids in the morning.
And so, armed with grief management activities, the love and support of my co-workers and morning meditation, I returned to class. The kids were peeking in the small door window that morning before class. I knew they'd wondered, 'would I act the same? Would I look the same? Would I be the same?' I wanted to be the same fun Mrs. McConnell they knew and loved, but how could I be? I was barely breathing I was so sad. But then I saw their joy at my return and it was infectious. We had a group hug, all 36 of them! I was surrounded by love and hugs and happiness.
We did our grief processing with some tears, theirs not mine. I held it together until the end of the day when I was sharing with them how hard it was for me to come back, but how easy they made it. Then I cried, just a little. But I think it was good for them to see my emotion. By Friday they were up to their old shenanigans and as 10 year olds will, they've moved on. Inside, I am still incredibly sad, but they've taught me an important lesson. Life does go on.