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Lori Ungemah Headshot

Writing Down the Grief

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Today marks sixteen years since my dad passed away. Diagnosed with juvenile onset diabetes around 1950, it is pretty amazing that he lived until 1996, until he was 61 years old. He was a diabetic for years before individuals tested their own blood sugar by pricking their fingers at home. Since his insulin shots were measured by guessing, he slipped into a diabetic coma multiple times during the early years of my parents' marriage, his body emitting the smell of nail-polish remover as he moved into the realm of the unconscious. I was not allowed to have nail polish remover in the house because the smell set my mom into a panic. He endured a finger amputation, knee surgeries, open heart surgery, laser surgery on his eyes, wearing braces on his legs, and years of kidney dialysis before a blister on his heel snowballed into six weeks in the hospital, partial foot amputation, an internal yeast infection, and a culminating heart attack. And then it was over.

I have written variations of this story many times on the whiteboard in my classroom, modeling for my students one of my "writing territories" (as they are referred to in writing workshop speak) -- an area of my life that I can write about freely and publicly. Most of my writing territories are about the hard parts of my life, about the stuff I am still muddling through even though many of these events happened when I was much younger. I didn't process them then. I was never asked about them by teachers, most of my friends, or even my own family. Nobody ever suggested to me that I might be able to grieve through my putting my words down on paper. Nobody ever suggested grieving, period.

But teenagers are grieving, and the more we can guide them through this process the more they can begin to understand the losses in their lives. When I was sixteen years old, I had three people die within two weeks of my life in November of 1990: A kid I had known since kindergarten lost his life to leukemia one week, the following weekend a teammate's dad had a heart attack and died at our regional cross-country meet, and the following week one of my best friends, Heidi, was killed in a car accident driving to school one day. Three deaths in two weeks. Nobody ever asked me about these events while they happened or after the funerals. I suddenly knew three people in the Sterling Cemetery, but I was supposed to pretend all was normal.

I moved to North Carolina three months later. My first day of school, in my advanced French class, the teacher asked me to introduce myself. I was to tell where I was from, who was in my family, who were my close friends from my hometown in Virginia, blah blah blah. I was doing okay until I got to the friend part. I started trying to explain -- in my crappy French-- how Heidi had been my friend since elementary school, but now she was dead. "Elle est morte?" My teacher asked, sure that I was stupidly muddling up my French, and I kept saying, "Oui!" but she kept shaking her head and saying, "Non." I got so frustrated, I started crying there in class, trying to explain the car accident, and then I started sobbing so hard I couldn't talk in English or French. I don't remember what happened next, but I do remember she never asked me to explain myself in English, French, or at all. It never came up again.

[This is another of my writing territories I often used in class. Lesson: God, teachers are so awful!]

With these experiences in mind, I always openly addressed grief, dying, and grieving in my classroom. It's pretty easy, actually. Between the many deaths in literature, the persistent grief and melancholia in poetry, and the unavoidable nature of death in real life, it's a subject that weaves itself easily into an English class.

My last year teaching high school, we read Sherman Alexie's amazing YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. During this unit, I had three of my 70 students lose parents or family members, all right around the three chapters in the novel when Junior (the protagonist) loses his grandma, his sister, and his dad's best friend, Eugene. In the book, Junior mourns. He is angry, shocked, and sad, but he finds ways to pull himself back to his life, too, after enduring a paralyzing few weeks of grief.

During this part of the unit, I talked to Elijah, my student who lost his grandmother the week before Junior's grandmother dies in the novel. Elijah was deeply grieving, and I felt I should warn him about the book's upcoming content. Elijah's grandmother had moved in and raised him when his dad left the family. She had watched him and his brother while his mom worked two jobs. She was his constant, and she was gone after a quick face off with cancer. He felt he never got to properly say goodbye, and he was a mess of grief. I told him he could leave the room when we read the chapter aloud if he wanted to, and he did, but he came back for the writing activity.

I stole the writing activity right out of Alexie's book. We talked about strategies for grief, about how to pull yourself out of a funk in general, and we made lists of all the things that made us happy. Our favorite songs, people, things to do, foods, books, rappers, sneakers, articles of clothing, movies, tv shows, restaurants, parts of Brooklyn, places to go ... anything. We shared these lists aloud, laughing at others' favorites. They were so into the music lists, that I had them bring in songs that made them feel peace after losing someone, and we analyzed them for figurative language. We spent 45 minutes listening to songs about death and dying, some students silently crying at their desks, tissues being passed around, and then we explored why the imagery, similes, and metaphors spoke to us. We did quick writes about someone in our life who had died, how we had grieved, and how we were trying to move on. We compared our experiences to Junior's in the novel in a formal compare and contrast essay, combining narrative experience with textual analysis. It was academically rigorous, socially and emotionally on par with the students' needs, and sparked some amazing levels of student engagement from a group of students I thought might be my professional downfall only two months earlier.

As I sit here tonight, thinking of my dad, thinking of the many times I have written about him on my whiteboard and how the students have sat silent as my words appeared, telling the story of loss in my life, I realize again how essential my writing about this real, lived, painful experience opened the door for my students to be real with me and with themselves through their writing. Some would call out in class and others would tell me quietly later about their dead parents, friends, and relatives, and we all wrote.

I recall a tête-à-tête in the Wall Street Journal last spring, between Megan Cox Gurdon's piece entitled "Darkness Too Visible" that expressed concern over the growing trend of lurid topics and language in Young Adult literature and a rebuttal, five days later, from Sherman Alexie, "Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood." The last words in his defense spoke to me as a teacher and a person, but I'll quote the last paragraph here for greater context:

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don't write to protect them. It's far too late for that. I write to give them weapons-in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

And this is why I teach real subjects, I write about my real life for my students, and I encourage them to do the same. Not only do I remember what it felt like to bleed when I was sixteen, but I am still bleeding. I have finally found a way to write with that blood in my 30s. I only wish it had been earlier.