Making Room for Death

By Katy Alexander

Illustrator: Hanna Barczyk

Hanna Barczyk

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
—Emily Dickinson, from “Because I could not stop for Death”

I went back to work three days after my mother died unexpectedly. I didn’t know what else to do. I asked my dad what I was supposed to do, but ironically he didn’t know what to tell me because both his parents are still alive. It’s one weird way in which I’m now older than my dad. She died on a Saturday in October, and he was at least able to suggest not to go to work on Monday. I needed someone to tell me what to do, so I stayed home Monday. I went back to work on Tuesday, though, because no one had taught me what to do when your mother dies. It was nearly two years ago, but I still remember those days after. All the 8th-grade teachers were at a training for a new poetry unit and we read the devastating poem “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard” by Kay Ryan. I cried and cried in the hallway. My friend Sunny sat next to me and put her arm around me. “Honey, you shouldn’t be here,” she said gently.

“It’s OK,” I said. “I just need a minute.” I thought she meant I couldn’t handle it. I could handle it, I thought.

“She was your mother. You shouldn’t be here,” Sunny said. “You should take that time for her.” I went home and didn’t come back to school for two weeks.

A week after returning to work, I had a doctor’s appointment scheduled. Just a physical, and I didn’t know if I was still supposed to go. I did, because, what else do you do? As I drove downtown I tried to remember what a doctor’s appointment is like. Is the death of your parents part of your medical history? Does that mean I have to update my medical history? There was nowhere on the form to mark that my mother had died of a heart attack at the age of 57 on a clear, cloudless, cold October night. There was nowhere to mark that she had died in a town called Hope. There was nowhere to mark that for two weeks after, it rained without hardly stopping. The doctor came in and asked me how I was feeling and I cried in response. Her face changed and she sat down in front of me and I could tell the doctor’s appointment was over and something else was happening.

“I am so so sorry,” she said. “Do you want to just talk today? We don’t have to do the appointment today.” I nodded. We talked for nearly an hour. I didn’t know doctor’s appointments could be that long.

“My aunt died when I was 12,” she said. “She was so young, she was only 20.” She started to tear up as she remembered. “See, even now I still miss her. You know, it’s hard in our culture, in American culture. My family is Filipino and in Filipino culture we take nine days to mourn. For nine days it was the family being together, grieving my aunt. We would eat together and pray and talk about my aunt, tell stories about her and cry together. Sometimes I wish American culture was more like that because we don’t make any room for death here.

“Grief is like a place. Right now you’re in grief. And you can’t leave it. And right now it feels like it will last forever, but it won’t. Over time grief will become a place outside of you. You can still go visit it, when you want to, but you don’t have to be there all the time. Like right now, I’m visiting the grief about my aunt, and she died so long ago, but I don’t have to stay there. It will be like that for you too, but not for a while. Right now you’re in it.

“You’re having trouble sleeping? Do you want to take something for it? You know it’s OK that you’re not sleeping, too. That time when you’re awake late at night, that’s time when you can remember your mom. It’s OK to not sleep if you can’t,” she said. “It’s normal to not be normal right now.”

It was the best doctor’s appointment I ever had. “You can come back and talk to me any time,” she said. “I’m so glad you came to talk to me today.” I was glad, too. She had made room for me.

A month after my mother died, a student at our school committed suicide. He was 13. My principal called me over the weekend to tell me. She told me I could take Monday off if I needed to. But I wanted to be the one to tell my students. I didn’t want them to be with a substitute. I co-teach first period with another teacher and he and I sat together that morning and looked out at our sweet 6th graders and I wondered how we were supposed to tell them that their schoolmate had died. We both cried. Our students cried. For the next three days there was a crisis response team at school and a “safe room” that overflowed in the library, then beyond the library. Then it was gone. Interestingly, three days was also the length of the bereavement leave in my contract. It’s as if everyone who writes the policies on crisis response and bereavement all got together and agreed that three days is enough for anyone to recover from a trauma.

Months later one of my students came up to me in the middle of class and asked if she could “just go walk around in the hall.” It was an unusual request, especially for her, a normally focused and diligent student. Something about her face told me that she needed that right now and I said yes. Later that afternoon I got an email from the counselor that her father had unexpectedly died the day before. Of course she needed to go walk around the halls. She needed a lot more than that. Why was she in school? The counselor said that my student and her sister would be at school as they were trying to “keep things normal” until the end of the school year. I wrote her a sympathy card and tried to offer some stupid wisdom about writing but didn’t really know what to say. It was strange to give her a card and never say these things to her in conversation. How do you write a sympathy card for your student?

* * *

A year after my mother died, the mother of one of my students also died unexpectedly. She was at school three days later. The counselor said not to talk to her about it because her family wanted to “keep things normal.”

* * *

Two years ago the father of one of our students was murdered on a Friday. She was back at school on Tuesday. Her family said they wanted to “keep things normal” for her. I happened to be in a meeting with her language arts teacher the morning she came back and he wondered if he should proceed with the lesson he had planned. They were going to read an article about how most fairy tales start with the death of a father. “Are you kidding me?” I said. “Teach literally anything else!” “But they want to keep things normal, so shouldn’t I just do what I’m going to do with all my other classes?” he asked. “Absolutely not, she’s not normal right now,” I responded. “You can’t read that essay today, of all days.”

On the one hand, death is normal in that it is something that happens to every single living being on earth. We teach about seasons, and how every fall the leaves die on the trees and fall down to the earth. It’s as normal as the rising and setting sun. Maybe fairy tales do start with the death of a father because losing our parents is something that will happen to almost everyone.

And yet . . . when we have lost our parents, when we are left holding the heavy sagging bag of memories and love, it is not a normal day for us. This death, among all the others in the world, is our very own earthquake. It doesn’t matter anymore if it’s a Tuesday or Wednesday or Saturday. It doesn’t matter if it’s the end of the fiscal year or the school year or summer. It’s time outside of time.

* * *

We don’t stop for death in U.S. culture, and we don’t make room for it in our classrooms. And when we don’t make room for it at school we are teaching students that it shouldn’t have room in our lives. There is no room for death here, we tell them, as we march forward with our curriculum, as we give them the test anyway because it’s Friday, as we read the sad poem anyway. We teach them that grief is a secret place we’re supposed to go visit by ourselves, and not for too long. It’s a secret place we sneak off to, crying in bathrooms, in hallways, on the way to work and trying to fix our makeup before we walk back through the doors. It’s private and we don’t talk about it. When it comes out, tears seeping out of our eyes at the staff meeting or in front of the class, we apologize. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cry.” The way we treat death says loudly: “Your grief is a private affair.” “Take a break in the hallway and come back when you’re ready — but don’t you bring that death in here.”

Maybe it’s because our schools were built on the factory model. Factories and production plants are loath to ever shut down because the cost to the loss of production, from the lost time it takes to turn the machines off and then on again, just isn’t worth it — from the standpoint of those who own the machines.

Oregon has one of the shortest school years in the country. I watch our building administrators agonize over taking a minute from passing time to add a minute to each class period, and teachers are encouraged to teach bell to bell. Is this what we’ve become? Production plants punching out grades like time cards, our students always switched on, always working, because any time to shut down is a loss in production. Is death the wrench in the machine that we refuse to shut down for?

And aren’t teachers supposed to have all the answers? Isn’t school the place we go to wrap it all up and figure it all out? But there’s simply no way to wrap anything around the cosmic force of death and loss. There is no right answer or rubric or guide. There’s no procedure or protocol or process to follow. Death, the limitless, unfathomable, and unknown, defies our systemic belief that we can measure understanding of the world by test scores, right answers, benchmarks, and grades.

Easier to avoid such unpleasant unanswerables altogether.

A year after our student committed suicide, district leaders forbid us from having any sort of public acknowledgement of the student because the experts said it would increase the risk of copycat suicides. So we marched through that whole week of school pretending that everything was normal, while we all felt this gaping and throbbing wound. We had an opportunity to teach our students about grief, but instead we again taught them that there is no room for that here.

One of the things I wondered about after my mom died was when I would feel normal again. “About two years,” my cousin said. “That’s how long it took me to start feeling normal again after my brother died. But you know, it’s not the same normal.”

Two years. But I tried to go back to work three days later. My students are back in my classroom the next day. Three days is the most time we get for a crisis response team in response to a suicide, and then it’s “back to normal.” When will we stop for death?

A little over a year after my mom died, I played an icebreaker game (two truths and a lie) with some of my classes after starting a new semester. “I hate pickles, I broke my femur when I was in middle school, and my father made this ring for my mother,” I told them.

“That’s the lie!” said Kaden.

“No, that part is actually true. My dad used to be a goldsmith and he made this for her.”

“Wow, is it real diamonds? Can I see it?” Isaiah asked.

“Sure.” I pulled it off and handed it to him. For one split second my mind worried about handing it to him. What if he dropped it and it rolled under something? But my heart told me he would be careful. “Yes, it’s a real diamond, my great-grandmother’s diamond, and real gold.”

“But why do you have it if your dad made it for your mom?”

“Because my mom died last year. And then my dad gave it to me. And now I wear it to remember her.” I teared up but didn’t hide it this time.

I want to find ways to bring death in, to stop the machines for a minute or two, to have our time outside of time for those who we love. Maybe we’ll write them poems, or bring in their pictures, or make a dedication board. Whatever it is we do, we have to find time to stop for death.

Katy Alexander ( is a special education teacher in Portland, Oregon.