A moment in your childhood, like a ghost, can haunt you for a lifetime. And if that moment is about the death of your hero, the ghost seems to loom even larger, as it threads its way into the very tapestry of your soul.
My dad would die of leukemia, January 8th, 1966. I was just 10 years old; he was 41. A 5th-grade teacher who didn’t return after the Christmas break, I often wondered what it was like as his students came bounding back, only to find that their favorite teacher was dead. Gone. Not coming back.
Of course, at the time, the only grief I could see was my own; after all, I was a little girl whose world had been turned upside down, forever.
I knew that children and parents alike were somehow heartbroken. Cards and notes came flooding into our home, each one more impassioned than the next, expressing a love and great sadness for the teacher that would not be returning.
But again, the only grief that mattered was my own.
Everything about life changed. Who I was in the world, changed. The notion that there was safety, changed. If you were able to hear the sounds of my heart, you might have been able to hear the thump, thump, thump of sadness, confusion, hurt, and fear.
At times, yelling and anger become a way to communicate, just so someone would listen. Silence took over when the pain was too difficult to express.
Panic would set in every time someone asked about my dad. Should I confess he has died? Or keep this secret safely tucked in the creases of my heart.
The years would spin by as I navigated my way through adolescence and young adulthood as a fatherless daughter. I craved meeting others who had been through it too, as the loneliness of grief, at times, seemed unbearable.
And while grief was pervasive throughout my life, I found support from family and friends. My education would provide me with the opportunity and privilege to do the work I had waited my whole life to do, becoming a grief specialist for children and adults.
But still gnawing and roaming around in the back of my mind, were thoughts of those 5th-grade children. I couldn’t help but wonder what they were thinking as they returned from the holidays to find out THEIR hero had died.
No longer was my grief just mine to hold onto tightly, but rather, was also the grief that belonged to the 35 young 5th graders who stumbled onto what was most likely their first voyage through grief.
At the beginning of each new year, on January 8th, I would wonder.
Several years ago, 38 years after my dad’s death, I approached the counter of my post office to mail a holiday package to family; on it, my maiden last name.
When the postal worker spied the name, she said, “I’ve only known one other person in my life with that last name. He was my 5th-grade teacher. He was my favorite teacher; so nice and so handsome; I’ll never forget him. He died that year that he was my teacher”.
At that moment, time seemed to stop. Both my heart and jaw had fallen to the floor.
And there it was, that ghost that had threaded its way through the very tapestry of my soul.
Once I could catch my breath, I quickly revealed, “That teacher you’re speaking of? He was my dad”. Tears began falling down both our cheeks. A slight smile appeared on her lips as if to say “I know”.
The knowing that comes only when grief is shared. The knowing that comes only when two hearts collide. We had found our way to each other. We shared memories and tears until I had to gently pull myself away from the counter.
Finally, a lifelong yearning would come to a close, fulfilled by knowing that at least one of those children, had grieved for and had never forgotten the man that was my dad.
After all, isn’t that what we all really want? To know that our lives, and the lives of those we love, mattered.
A sense of healing embraced my heart and mind that day…
the day my childhood ghost could finally rest.