I packed up a student’s belongings yesterday. He was one of our gap year students, meaning he has a high school degree already from his home country and was with us simply for an American experience before heading off to college back home. I pulled his clothes off their hangers, folding them neatly to go in his suitcase with the rest of his belongings. I set aside all of the school papers – he won’t be needing those – as well as the knit uniform shirts, three ring binders, and history text books. He won’t be needing those either.
At the same time, I found myself growing teary at the thought that I won’t see him again, certainly not in this time and place, but also grateful that I wasn’t packing up a student’s belongings because of a death. When you work with kids and love them deeply, you live with a fear that you’ll lose one forever and will have to shoulder that grief. I stood there, sad to be packing his things but so very grateful knowing he is safe.
Before I left the dorm last night, another student made his “goodbyes” to those of us gathered. He is a domestic student and his parents have called him home for now. He’s not one of mine, doesn’t live in our dorm, but I love him, too, having known him since he transferred mid-year in the middle school and have had the joy of watching him thrive and grow for several years now. Again, I was so grateful for his smile and so grieved that it might be August before I see him again.
My body let me fall asleep but didn’t let me rest in that state for long. I found myself walking across campus early this morning, heading up the hill to my office. It’s been a long while since I woke in the wee hours and resigned myself to the waking, giving myself over to alert productivity rather than the restorative work of dreaming. The twilight was beautiful as I made my way between the buildings I love and the air was clean and healing. I lifted first a prayer of thanksgiving for living in a place with air ripe for breathing and safe enough to walk alone at 2 a.m. Then followed it with a sigh of a prayer, a lament, knowing the waking hours today would not bring “normal” back or my students or the joy of the taken-for-granted daily life.
Even now as I type, I feel tears behind my eyes and a welling in my heart; the one for the sadness and the other for the gratitude. My sadness would not be as profound if I didn’t wholly love my people, my place, my community, my life. Were I not so in love, the separation would not be so cutting. There would be no sense of emptiness in the arms that miss their hugs or misspent anticipation for favorite students who won’t walk through the door. I hurt because I have so much for which to give thanks, so even the hurt is a thanksgiving in and of itself.
And I guess that’s what I would say to you all, my dear friends. Don’t fear the grief. Allow it to be a part of your rhythm in this time. It will be your companion regardless, so make peace with it; do not be afraid to seek to understand it. This is a time of loss and to deny that would be unhealthy to the grossest degree. There are little losses everywhere right now. And big losses sprinkled about, at times more heavily than others.
Within that grief is gratitude. When I sit with a grieving family member who apologizes for their tears, I remind them that each tear is a prayer of thanksgiving for the life of the one they have lost.
Fear not the tears, my friends. They are prayers – prayers of pain, of loss, of suffering, laments shouted out in silence; but so, too, are they prayers of thanksgiving for love that was and is, for blessings recognized and missed, for all the grace that is poured on us, measure upon measure.
I’m here with you, sitting in the space of grief and gratitude, not in contradiction but in a inextricable marriage of loss and blessings.
Continuing to send you all my love and God’s light.