April 14th Two weeks to ride start
My Uncle Steven, was 37 years old and dying of metastatic testicular cancer when our mother took my brothers and me to see him. She prepped us by saying that he was near death and on oxygen. At 17 years old, I was lost. “What should I talk to him about?”, I asked my mother. “Just tell him what you’re doing”, She said. We were ushered into his room. He lay in bed propped up with pillows behind his back with oxygen tubing in his nose. Emaciated, all his effort was given to inhaling as deep as he could through his nose, twenty times a minute. He looked up at us with exhausted eyes. I was overwhelmed by emotion as we watched him labor to breathe. I don’t remember what we said to him. Too tired and short of breath, he could not engage with us in conversation. We said our goodbyes and left. In the hospital hallway, I felt relief, guilt, loss, emptiness, overwhelming sadness, and other emotions I could not define.
A few days later, on a cold December day, he passed away leaving behind his 33-year-old wife and three young children, 6, 4, and 2 years old. The oldest child, now a 52 year old physician, spoke with me recently about his memories of grieving for his father in his childhood years. “No one else in class knew what I was going through.” Said my cousin. He cried spontaneously for months afterwards, especially when alone. “Grief for me was like a rollercoaster with sudden emotional swings that were beyond my control”, he said. Remembering that at the time he was described as “8 going on 15”, by his 3rd grade teacher, who knew of his father’s death. The teacher said it was a goal to get him to smile. Fortunately, his mother is a very strong woman. “I always knew she loved me” and “I always felt I had security for whatever I did.” he said. “She made sure that family and friends were very involved in our lives.” His mother married again, “to a wonderful man I call Dad”, he said, with great warmth.
My cousin, the physician, was 37 years old when he married, and the couple had their first child. The timing of these major milestones in his life reminded him of both his father and of what he learned since childhood about life and grief. He told me, “Understand that your loss will make you a different person – but don’t doubt that eventually you’ll be ok. Find a few people (sic family and friends) who have your back, people you can count on. Remember, it is not your job to help others with their discomfort as they try to find the right words to comfort you – allow yourself to grieve.” In school counseling would have helped my cousin work through the challenging grief process he endured.
In November, 2017, another first cousin passed away from metastatic melanoma. He left behind three young children. Several of my friends lost their fathers when they were young- 9 and 6 years old. A dear friend of mine lost his beautiful spouse leaving behind a 6 year old son and another dear friend lost his wonderful wife 5 days after she give birth to their second daughter.
Nearly everyone reading this blog has experienced their own grief following the loss of a loved one or a classmate. And while the journey of grief has similar stages and characteristics, each is unique to the individual. In my own experience, I know that grief is incredibly complicated and life changing. We can never prepare for it and grief is always different, always unpredictable with each new loss.
Through this blog, we will learn from our outstanding Growing Through Grief counselors how they help students learn to deal with their grief. They will help us understand that a child’s grief is different than an adult’s and is significantly dependent on the age of the child when they lose a loved one or classmate. We will also see how the counseling changes lives and improves school performance for children in measurable ways. And we will hear from students about the many benefits they receive from the counseling.
So, I dedicate my ride across America to the memory of the family members and friends I have lost and to those children now dealing with grief in childhood. I will have many days on the road to remember the lives of my loved ones now gone and what made each relationship unique. And my memory of them is a blessing to me.