One of my students lost a friend in a car crash this week. He wasn’t one of mine and didn’t go to our school, so I didn’t know about it until she showed me the news article. Sitting in class, staring at the computer screen, another one of her friends tried to cheer her up by showing her cute pictures from the internet.
“It’s not fair,” she told me, fidgeting and wringing her hands. It was hard to meet her eyes as I was reminded of my own friend I lost when we were younger. Both nineteen. My friend was killed along with his father and two brothers, hers was killed because he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.
“How did you deal with it?” her friend asked. Of all the things my students say and all the weird things they ask, how could I answer this?
High schoolers are no strangers to life experiences – sex, drugs, death. Many of our students have faced quite a bit, but many haven’t. This student in particular has already had a life full of challenges, she is no stranger to them, however she is still a teenager. She’s fifteen. I was nineteen when my friend was killed – four years ago and it has made quite a difference.
“I was sad and I cried, I spent time with my friends and we talked about it,” I told them. “I can’t really remember the first few days after though. There are still songs that remind me.”
I didn’t have words of wisdom for these two. I couldn’t tell them that no, young people dying is not fair. I told them it happens. I told them unfortunately it was a part of life – you grow older, you lose people you love. I can’t tell them it’s fair or not fair. I can’t tell them that I think it sucks. I can’t tell them that it is always hard.
Why do some people leave you in a blink of an eye? Why do kids die while some grow older than the hills? Why do some people stew in their sins for years and others make one fatal mistake? Why do the drunk drivers live and families die?
“Maybe if you didn’t love people, it wouldn’t hurt so much,” one of the girls said.
I told her that I disagreed. People die. You will lose the ones you love or they will lose you – as humans with limited clocks, this is our fate. I shared a quote with them though, one that has shaped my own grief in my lifetime.
In his autobiography, The Heart and the Fist, Eric Greitens, a Navy Seal, writes about a morning when he was jogging and encountered a memorial with names of fallen friends on it. After pausing to reflect with another runner, they moved on.
“We ran in quiet for a while, both of us humbled by our good fortune to have known worthy people and to have loved them. Both of us humbled by the incredibly gift of continued life.”
We are lucky to know good people and we are lucky to love. That first death you experience scars you. It shakes you awake and introduces you to a tougher world. Everyone enters it one day. Though I don’t necessarily believe that everything happens for a reason, I know that lessons can be learned from these experiences.
Hold on to the ones you love. Your and their days are numbered. Live each day the best you can. Honor them with your memories and by living as best a life as you can. Cherish those moments.
We can’t stop our students from learning the world. They will grow up, some already have. I wish I could tell them I had all the answers; that it was easier as an adult – but it’s not. I can listen and pat their shoulders and tell them, “I know it sucks. I know. I lost someone too.” And maybe eventually we’ll understand.