Monday, August 18, 2014

A disappointment, finally voiced

Last week, I finished and hand delivered a letter to the office of the superintendent of our school district.  My letter described, in detail, the radically unhelpful response and support of C.T.'s school, in the months following Zachary's death.  The refusal to acknowledge Zachary's death with a simple notification letter to classroom families.  The robotic, sterile responses of everyone we dealt with, as we asked for the most basic support for C.T., in the loss of his beloved brother.  The "waiting for C.T. to show or tell us" he needed support through some unlikely behavioral issue or a decline in his academics.  The bouncing us around from teacher to social worker to principal, with no regard or empathy for our lack of emotional stamina, for our inability to formulate anything beyond a primal cry for help.  The complete non-validation of C.T.'s loss and his grief.  

When Zachary was born, C.T. was asked to share his good news in front of his classmates. But when he died, it was like C.T.'s brother had been mere mirage.  No one asked.  Beyond his teacher's attendance at the funeral and a couple of classmates who, according to C.T., showed interest in Zachary or who he felt comfortable sharing with, no one at school mentioned Zachary again.  No one asked C.T. how he was doing, how he was feeling.  And because the school refused to notify classroom families about our loss, even those who might have talked with their child about Zachary's death and C.T.'s loss, who might have encouraged their student to show sympathy and support, who might have demonstrated it for their child, were left unaware..., or paralyzed with inaction because of the hushed secrecy surrounding the something (?) that happened to the S family. 

Zachary is here safely.  How wonderful!  Tell us all about him. 
Zachary is dead.  You say you watched him die.  Shhh.  Please keep that to yourself.  

It hurt to be treated this way by his school, a place we assumed would envelope C.T. and us in compassion and support.  With no fight in me at the time, not a lick of energy that I could feasibly devote to it, I gave up on asking the school for anything on behalf of C.T. on March 1, not even two months after Zachary died. 

In my letter to the superintendent, I noted the positive aspects of C.T. returning to school after Zachary's death.  The consistent schedule, the lessons, the familiar faces.  Some normalcy, in what was an otherwise horrifically traumatic time.  Yet, I struggled to balance my disgust and cynicism about the "community building" that is supposedly foundational to the values of the district - which completely failed us when we needed it - with some level of professionalism.  I offered up examples of what would have been helpful and supportive in the aftermath of Zachary's death, and expressed my desire that no other bereaved students/families experience this kind of treatment, ever again, when an immediate family member dies. 

Surprisingly, the superintendent, who we don't know at all, reached out to me by email, not even six hours after I dropped the letter.  His response was compassionate and full of regret about our experience with the school.  Fifteen years ago, his own son died.   


The new school year begins this week, on the 20th, exactly seven months after Zachary's death.  I am going to feign optimism about the school, its leaders, teachers and professionals, for C.T.'s sake.  I will label each and every crayon and marker with his name, because unbelievably, THAT has been deemed important.  I will talk to C.T.'s teacher about Zachary's death just seven months ago, about the fact that C.T. has two deceased siblings.  I will share our story so that when he does his All About Me poster this year, his teacher can minimally be prepared for the questions that may arise when he talks about his family, about his two dead brothers.

And, we will walk to and from school, everyday, without Zachary. 



  1. The end of your post broke my heart. I will be thinking of C.T. as he returns to school tomorrow. I am amazed at how resilient children can be but i am very sorry C.T. has so much he needs to face -- his own grief but also how the world reacts to it and him.
    And i will also be thinking of Zachary and you.

  2. I know exactly how you must have imagined walking C.T. to school with Zachary and then spending the time while your bigger boy was at school with your littler one, your baby. I know the terrible hurt of realizing that won't be what happens. And I know the disappointment of people's and institution's failure to recognize the needs of our grieving children. Reaching out to you with a virtual supportive hand.

  3. I find that adults, though uncomfortable with my grief, are flat out terrified of my children's grief. For awhile, all my kids could think of and talk about was Graham, and Graham's loss (and he still remains in the forefront of... everything). Nora would announce loudly to the teller in the check-out line, "my brother died". And I would watch people literally shudder, glance up at me and then dart thier gaze away - they would flat out ignore her or change the subject entirely. Sometimes I would have the energy to reinforce her sharing, "can you share your favorite memory with this person?" but often times I just felt let down by our 'village' She's sharing with you! She's grieving! Show this little girl some grace and kindness! Please, help me! Perhaps too much to ask from most people, especially strangers... but all the same...

  4. I am so sorry you experienced this. All too often we are asked not to talk about our grief, which is the surest way to perpetuate this cycle of grief-as-shameful-and-secret.

  5. I have only found your blog today (via your incredibly spot-on comment on Glow in the Woods regarding multiple losses and the lack of a "posse") and am spending time reading through the archives. I find myself nodding in agreement to much of what you've written...but this one...I had to comment on this one. I clearly remember the letter I emailed my son's teacher about his lost siblings (a copy still sits in my sent folder). And I clearly remember the silence that followed. It is horrible. I hope that the intervening time since you originally posted this has proven that your son's school can do better. In my case, it never improved (though that is a whole story for another day). And...seriously...I hate the stupid All About Me poster...for so many reasons. I hope today treats you kindly (and you find some relief for your feet). Take care.

    1. Catherine - Thank you for reading and commenting. I've already been breathing in your blog, as now I've found you too. I am so, so, utterly sad to know that you have lost three of your children. It is more than horrendous, more than wholly absurd, more than any single human should have to bear. Catherine I am just so sorry.

      And so sorry to know that your school failed your (living) son too. For me, now, there just seems no way (for the school) to right the wrong retroactively. After I wrote this post in late summer of 2014, the superintendent had a meeting with the principal (and probably others involved) to discuss my input and feedback. While I appreciated that, neither of them ever got back to me with a sincere apology from the school or any plan for making certain the same doesn't happen to another trusting bereaved family. What disturbed me most of all is that the social worker was so inept at thinking about how to be there for C.T. She gave no guidance, dedicated no time to asking or exploring how to help. It was like they just couldn't wait for us to give up and retreat quietly back to our misery..., which was very quickly, obviously. It is very difficult for me not to be cynical about everything the school does. Meaningless papers come home everyday. I usually sigh with disgust (how can these things be important?) before pitching them straight into the garbage. Thankfully, C.T.'s teacher this year has been relatively compassionate and caring, regarding his grief and his family. As much as a 20-something with no kids, certainly no dead ones, can be.