How do we process grief? With words? In silence? With anger, action, inactivity? At some point these have all applied to me. Sometimes…I process grief through painting.
As a teacher, there have been times where people asked me what I dislike about my job. I may flippantly reply that I hate when students are lazy, or (when piles of papers loom over my desk) that I dislike grading. But there is really only one thing I hate about teaching, and that is losing students. In 12 years of teaching, I’ve already buried more than I can count on one hand. Four of those were within the past 2 years, and time/experience don’t make that aspect of teaching easier. I still see the back of someone’s head in school or out shopping and think (for a split second) that it’s this or that student I lost years ago. Particularly when they’ve graduated, and I wouldn’t be seeing them often anyway…it’s hard to believe they’re really gone.
A student once interviewed me for a sociology paper about faith and its positive (or negative) effect on modern teens. At some point during our discussion, I remember asking her why death always feels wrong. Whether we’re burying my 100-year-old great-grandmother, a miscarried baby, or a child of any age, the loss pierces straight to the heart. When asked, my student was thoughtful for a few moments and had no response. I told her I think the reason death always feels wrong is that we were not created for death. Before Genesis chapter 3, it wasn’t part of the human equation. And ever since then we’ve fought it with every fiber of our being. We cannot cheat or stop it. And, whether we know the person is going to a better place or not, we mourn it. At night, as tears slide down my cheek, into my ear, and dampen the pillow beneath, I cry out: “Papa, WHY!?” The silence echoes no audible answer. Though, peace descends slowly with the softness of sleep.
Alex Kierstead was one of those kids who brightens a room. Friendly, easy-going, a twinkle in his eye; I’ve seen posts on Twitter and Facebook of everyone saying how he genuinely loved people and would do anything for them. I first met Alex in 6th-grade and had him in various art classes throughout middle and high school. When he wasn’t in my class, he was one of those kids who would catch me in the hallway and check in…ask how my classes were going, fill me in on what he was up to. It was his goal senior year to gather enough students to finally make our Printmaking class run. (For many years no one had signed up for the class, and people practically forgot it existed.) Alex rallied friends and strangers together, spreading word , and encouraging them to sign up. I think about 13 did sign up for it…still not enough to run the class. So, he never got his Printmaking at Waubonsie. But the fact that he had the gumption to try, and the charisma to bring others along for the ride, was typical Alex. I can’t stand to rehash the details of his death here. There are news articles online I’d encourage you to read. They speak of creativity, a love of hiking and outdoors. They speak of a life well-lived and a young man dearly loved.
This is the first time in my life where the advent season and mourning have gone hand-in-hand. This is a hard Christmas. I am not used to crying this much or this often. And, as difficult as this is for his teachers and friends to process, it must be infinitely harder for his family. As I talked with my grandpa on the phone this evening, I asked him to pray for me…and he did, right then and there on the phone. Hanging up after that call, I was reminded of John 1:5, “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That night in Bethlehem a new star appeared – bright enough for astrologers to follow it hundreds of miles. That star pointed to a tiny life which could not be extinguished. Emmanuel was here. God was finally physically with us. The darkness could fight, but it could not win. I will wrestle. I will mourn. I will cry out and question why. But darkness and mourning do not have the final word. In tears again this Sunday at church, the words of a familiar carol had new meaning for me: “Mild he lays his glory by. Born that man no more may die. Born to raise the lost of earth. Born to give them second birth. Hark! The herald angels sing: glory to the newborn king.” …Born that man no more may die. Lord, help us. Show us you’re here right now. God with us.