I had been a mental health counselor for many years when my younger son died by suicide at age 16 in 2018.
Before that happened, I had often steered clear of grief work. I stayed in the “safer” zones of anxiety and self-esteem. Throughout my tenure working with students in grades four to nine, I taught a wide variety of social-emotional skill-building classes—even substance abuse and suicide prevention—but I skimmed the surface. Loss and grief were…too heavy, depressing, unwieldy.
When I look back now, I see myself as afraid. I tiptoed around the counseling landmines of death and trauma. I felt honored and privileged to explore others’ pain, but did so with clinical detachment and a dedication to problem-solving (“Let’s fix this!”). Naiveté led the way. I thought, despite the overwhelming statistics about traumatic loss, that my family would be immune to tragedy.
I didn’t educate myself more fully until I was faced with my own grief head-on and it was shocking, profound, debilitating. When I was deep in my sorrow—I’ll always carry a portion of it with me—I became a student again.
I returned to the enormous notebook from the GGSC’s Summer Institute for Educators, reapplying the lessons about resilience, gratitude, and mindfulness to myself. I amped up my meditation practice with Headspace. I absorbed video classes for professionals on depression, post-traumatic growth, and trauma and the body. I went to therapy, sought out therapeutic massage, and found grief yoga; I read books and websites about loss, grief, and hope. I used my jewelry workshop, collage, and paints to create art and reframe my guilt and hurt. I stared at trees, rode my bike, climbed mountains, and watched the sunsets from the comfort of my patio, surrounded by my well-tended gardens. The list goes on.
All these practices taught me a lot about grief. I learned that if I wanted a post-traumatic growth story of my own, I needed to shift the question from “Why?” to “What?”: What now? What next? What for? I could not bring my son back, but I could work to develop a mental health screening form to be incorporated with all the other back-to-school paperwork families needed to complete for the following school year. I could make my experience accessible to students, offering small group social-emotional sessions where I answered their questions about my son’s death and the loss honestly, openly, and in developmentally appropriately ways in those initial months. I continued to teach and counsel with this new lens, sharing strategies for carrying grief and trauma with students and staff.
Despite all that knowledge and effort, I still felt exhausted and self-critical. The daily work of helping current students and their families navigate crises was overwhelming, while trying to come to grips with the times I’d missed opportunities for deeper work with former students and missed the signs of my son’s struggles. I decided to step away from school counseling and gave my notice to the school in January 2020.
A healing story
Then, I had the chance for renewal. Some months later, the school where I had been working offered me the sixth-grade English Language Arts position. With pandemic spring dragging into the summer, I dove into lesson planning and contemporary children’s literature. Books are clearly a bridge to a deeper understanding of life’s potential and pitfalls. This was my chance to remain engaged with students, bringing social-emotional learning into their daily lives, with books as the backdrop, and learning new professional skills all at once. The new role was also a chance to revamp my schedule, allowing me to focus on my family and my goals for post-traumatic growth.
While researching how to increase students’ capacity to engage with reading and writing, I discovered Michelle Cuevas’s tender and uplifting story The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole. Her story of equal parts science, silliness, and sadness blends together to form a relatable novel for young readers. It also ended up helping me navigate my grief, reshape my professional life, and find new ways to tackle heavy topics with students.
In the book, it’s 1977 and Stella, the plucky 11-year-old main character, is grieving the recent loss of her father. They’d made a recording together for Carl Sagan’s Golden Record—an attempt to bring human sounds to extraterrestrials. Stella tries to deliver the recording to Sagan at NASA, and a black hole she names Larry (short for Singularity) follows her home. Adventures ensue featuring Brussels sprouts, knitted nightmares, younger brother Cosmo, a clawfoot bathtub, and a very smelly hamster. The black hole serves as a metaphor for Stella’s grief; her world has been swallowed up by sadness and loss. How can she go on? How can anyone?
I was hopeful the students would be able to use the reading comprehension questions and techniques I’d researched, especially the Notice & Note Signposts developed by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. Their practical and adaptable framework provided the structure for the classroom environment I wanted to create.
I didn’t want students to cruise through a book just to check it off some reading achievement log, set it aside, and move on to something else as quickly as possible, like drivers on autopilot who travel to and from their destinations without any mindful connection to the journey. The literary signposts, such as the salience of memories, the symbolism of repetition, and insights (usually delivered by a wiser, older character), serve as the roadmap for readers to engage with the messages and meaning within a story. Teaching students to notice and note the signposts about how a character figures something out, makes decisions, and changes throughout the story would help them read at a deeper level and enrich our class discussions.
This quote about student engagement from Beers’s and Probst’s guidebook, Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, resonated with me: “We want them inside the text, noticing everything, questioning everything, weighing everything they are reading against their lives, the lives of others, and the world around them.”
I wanted my students to uncover the ways Stella integrated her loss. They rocked it.
Navigating the black hole
We listened to portions of the story each day while I held a paperback copy, showing the illustrations when referenced in the audiobook. During our reading response sessions, one student said, “Stella’s dad’s death is brought up again and again.” When pressed about the significance of this, she explained that the loss is “filling up her world.”
Later in the story, another student talked about how Stella was changing: “She’s wrestling with the fact that her dad is gone and she has to love other people.” He backed up his response with references to Stella’s cherished memories of her father, especially one when they’d shared space-themed jokes. In that poignant scene, the father explains he’s gone physically, but he will always be there in Stella’s heart.
During another class, when Stella and the rest of the crew are finally making their way out of the black hole, a student commented that the phrase “It’s time to go home” signified the integration of the loss: “She wanted to live in the past, but realizes it’s time to go. She’s ready.”
Since the pandemic was an ongoing, omnipresent force in students’ lives that fall, it was easy to make comparisons to Stella’s story and the COVID crisis. Stella missed the life she had before and felt confused and angry; the students all identified significant relationships altered as a result of COVID. Some unloaded worries about their grandparents’ health, and returning students lamented the loss of traditional school events and activities. They followed the protocols, wore their masks, and forged ahead.
When we finished the novel, we had a final wrap-up lesson. We reviewed the symbolism embedded in the story, summarized some of the ways Stella changed and grew as the story progressed. We analyzed her internal conflict. We deduced the book’s main idea: GRIEF. I wrote the word on the board, with some of the letters only partially formed. I could see their minds whirring. “It’s like it’s not completely erased,” one student said, and the others nodded enthusiastically in agreement. Slowly, around the room, more hands popped up. They articulated how Stella navigated her way out of the black hole: rejoining activities, rekindling friendships, and reconnecting with those present and available in her life, while holding on to her father’s memory deep in her heart.
During the summer, when I’d listened to the novel on walks or while knitting on the couch, I was testing myself as a new teacher and as a student of sorrow. It was one thing to read Cuevas’s powerful little novel, but could I embrace this new teaching role and change the direction of my professional life? Could I identify the pivotal moments in Stella’s grief journey, and understand why they were so meaningful? What about my own?
I did and I could. I absorbed Cuevas’s messages about living in the present, recognized the duality of heartbreak and joy contained in memories, and identified with the sustaining power of love in the face of sadness, so I could step forward into a new version of my life.
I cannot go back and change the choices I made as a parent or as a professional counselor. I can choose to focus on all the lessons I’ve learned from doing a deep dive into grief, charting my own course out of the black hole (and sometimes taking brief trips back in). Those of us who are grieving make our way through the overwhelming weight of loss with the help of newfound knowledge, tons of self-care, and lots of love from others. As I recast myself as an English teacher, I choose to push ahead and help a new generation of students embrace tough and universally human topics, laying the groundwork for them to become mentally strong adults, one book at a time. As a bereaved parent, I’ll continue to move forward crafting the next chapters of my own life with intention, purpose, and more than a few tears—just like Stella.