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Heartbroken

That one word status update on a friend and fellow teacher’s Facebook page Wednesday night spoke volumes. A popular Korah student had passed away after a valiant struggle with cancer.
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That one word status update on a friend and fellow teacher’s Facebook page Wednesday night spoke volumes.

A popular Korah student had passed away after a valiant struggle with cancer.

The next morning staff were called to a special meeting, where the principal tearfully announced her passing. I had the unenviable task of teaching the first-period Vocal Music class that she would have attended.

A counsellor accompanied me and made the official announcement, although most of the class had already heard.

It was a very subdued group of young people who sat there, many in tears, trying to come to terms with such a tragic loss. For many, this was the first friend they have lost.

The next evening I was speaking with a friend who is a Minister — the minister who would perform the funeral service for this young lady — and we agreed that, as a society, we do not do a good job of preparing our young people (or even adults) to deal with death.

I recall, when I was about 6, my great-grandmother passed away. Everyone was quite upset, and it was explained to me that she had died. And that was it.

I was not taken to the funeral, my elders all believing I was “too young” for such an experience. Similarly, a few years later when my great-grandfather passed away, I was again left at home.

But I do know how those young people feel. I, too , experienced the death of friends during my youth.

The first experience came on the first day of grade six, lining up at the door ready to go in to start the new school year. The word went around about a student — Joe — who was no longer with us, who had crashed while riding a motorized mini-bike and was killed.

I can’t say he was a close friend. The year prior he had been bullying me — I was the new kid at school, that year — and a very wise vice principal made us work together to learn a song we would play on our guitars for the school talent show.

As I said, we didn’t become close friends, but we did resolve our bullying issue. And, it was the first time I ever performed in public.

The next came a few years later, during the summer after grade 8. A friend I had made after we moved to the new Fort Creek subdivision drowned while swimming at the reservoir.

During high school a friend and fellow band member committed suicide.

A friend from my church youth group was killed in a traffic accident.

I didn’t attend any of their funerals, however.

The first I did attend was that of my great aunt — my grandmother’s youngest sister. Auntie Verna was, in a word, “cool.” I remember going to her house for a visit, and her playing a new album for us: Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadd-Da-Vida.

My mother wasn’t impressed, but I was.

My aunt loved classical and rock music, but her absolute favourite was Neil Diamond. She also encouraged my musical talents, having me play the organ any time I came over their house to visit my cousins.

I’m sure she would be proud of my accomplishments.

Her passing was the first of family that I really knew well, and would truly miss. Her funeral, though it evoked a lot of emotion, wasn’t too difficult for me to get through.

Next was my grandfather. His passing, and funeral, was very difficult for me, as we were very close.

My grandmother asked me to be one of the pall bearers, along with a few of my cousins. Sitting in the pew I began to sob uncontrollably, as I came to the realization of the finality it represented.

Over the years since I have attended too many funerals: family, friends, parents. There have also been other deaths where I wasn’t able to attend the funeral, or where a funeral was not held.

None have been easy to deal with. Even the deaths of those whom I only knew slightly have affected me.

We all grieve in our own way, but like many other things in our lives, we learn from others. Often it is our parents and family who provide an example for us.

If they remain stoic and all stiff-upper-lipped, then we will likewise learn to hold our feelings in check. Or, if they are very demonstrative and emotional, it is likely we will be, too.

Some cultures have very elaborate traditions surrounding death and funerals. Many are very demonstrative in showing their grief, wailing and beating their chests, and gesticulating heavenward.

Although they may seem strange to us, these rituals are very natural to those cultures.

In speaking with clergy friends, we have discussed the various situations that families find themselves in, and the way in which they try to cope with their loss. 

There are people who do not want a funeral, or want a very understated ceremony to mark the passing of their loved one.

In discussing this, the suggestion is often raised that people who request that there be no funeral are missing the point. It isn’t about the person who has passed away. It is about those who have been left behind.

The trend over the past few years is to have a “celebration of the life” of the departed: pictures, videos, mementoes, and recollections of “the good times” shared with family and friends over the years.

I find this approach very comforting. Yes, there is sadness at the loss, and I will always acknowledge that loss. But the loss is not what I want to carry in my heart.

I want to remember the good times, the sad times, and even the tough times. I want to remember why that person — friend, family, colleague — was special to me. I want to remember the best of that person.

It is heartbreaking when we experience the loss of a loved one, and even more so when that loved one is taken at such a young age.

Those we have loved who are no longer with us never truly leave us. They live within our hearts. We carry memories of them with us, recalling the times we have spent together, or perhaps words they have spoken.

This is the advice that I gave the class that solemn Thursday morning: 

Do not dwell on the loss. We will always feel the loss. 

Although the pain will diminish, it never entirely goes away. But if we can recall the good times, and all the reasons why that person was special to us, it will ease the pain, and bring a smile to our faces.

Remember the good times and the laughter, the sad times and the tears, the tough times and the frustrations. Remember why you were friends. Most of all, remember your friend and all that you shared  together.

It is very sad that these young people have had to cope with such a tremendous loss. We adults — family, friends, teachers, etc — can try to protect them as much as possible, but we will all, eventually, experience the loss of a loved one.

All we can do, at any age, is to make the best of the time we have together while we can, and create memories that we can treasure when the time has passed.

But… that’s just my opinion.