Lessons About Loss

Reflection given by Cil Dullea, November 29, 2017

     Years ago I had the experience of working individually with one of my art students when he became terminally ill.  I volunteered with anxiety, worrying that I lacked the temperament and skill to deal with anything so hard.  Yet day-by-day, my student’s courage taught me many things.  So did the compassion of others in the community.   

     One woman’s son was a close friend of the ill child.  Our paths crossed at his home often enough for me to marvel at how graciously she stayed present to her own son’s issues while caring for the ill child and his parents, too.  It was a time that changed me.


     This same mother would figure in my life a handful of years later when I recognized her familiar last name on my class list of first graders.  When I inquired of the townie school nurse whether it was the same family she told me, yes, and asked if I was aware that the child’s mom had since suffered an aggressive form of breast cancer and recently died.  I was shocked to remember this young, vibrant woman; so supportive to her older son years before; overwhelmed by the unfairness she must have felt at having to leave her younger boy behind.  

     During that year I watched Brian carefully.  He was sometimes sad, but seemed to be doing okay.  

     As Mother’s Day approached I thought, “Better skip making Mother’s Day cards this year with the first grade.”  But as I called to mind that loving woman, I thought again, and arrived at Brian’s classroom with my card-making supplies.  

     Was I doing the right thing?  This could backfire.  How could I explain myself to Brian’s dad if it caused Brian pain?  But how else could I honor what the honesty of that other student had taught me as he lay dying?

     “We’re going to make Mother’s Day cards today,” I announced.  And a couple of dozen stricken faces looked up at me in disbelief.  A hand shot up, “Yes?”  I asked.

     “We can’t do that,” Josh said, his body language adding, you fool.  “Brian doesn’t have a mom.”

      “Of course he does,” I replied, “She died, but she’ll always be his mom.  Isn’t that so, Brian?”

      “Yes,” he said, not in embarrassment but - I thought - I hoped - gratefully.  Then I did my regular talk about how others sometimes substitute for mothers, perhaps an aunt or someone who watches you mornings until you get on the bus when your parents have to leave for work early. 

     “Do you have a person like that in your life, Brian, or would you like to make a card for your mother?”  

     Every eye was on him though he didn’t seem to notice.  “For my mom,” he said.

     Molly’s hand shot up, “But where will he send it?”   

     The nurse had told me Brian visited his mother’s grave every Sunday after church.  The information had helped me to decide to make the cards but I was nervous, for teachers aren’t supposed to speak of anything a child might construe to be religious.  Were we headed there?  But before Brian could speak another hand jabbed the air with urgency. 

     “I know what he can do!”  Katie insisted, and with a little trepidation, my nod gave her permission to continue.  

     “He can leave the card under his pillow with a note to the Tooth Fairy and ask her to bring it up to heaven.”  

     Brian paused, “That’s a good idea,” he said.  “But I’ll take it to the cemetery this Sunday.”

     And everyone felt satisfied and worked to make their cards.


     I’ve replayed those two minutes when tempted to give up on humanity many times.  The strength those six year olds rallied to protect Brian and the innocence with which they engaged to struggle with the emptying grief of loss, encapsulates my faith.  

     The poet Adrienne Rich said it perfectly with these lines:  "My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed.  I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world."