A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
This is a guest post by Zainab AbdulAziz
In a week when the British media covered the issue of educating young children about death, I wanted to add another voice to the debate. Zainab AbdulAziz, 30, is a half-American half-Egyptian English teacher and journalist. She is currently completing her MA in Education at Kingston University and freelances as an assistant producer for NBC News in London. Her father passed away young, aged just 53, in December 2003 when she was 20 years old. In her post, Zainab talks the about the importance of educating educators on how to sensitively handle the death of their students’ loved ones. Something that her teachers failed to do from such an early age.
My first memorable experience of death occurred when I was just 10. I was sitting in the sunny fifth year classroom, surrounded by giggly voices and chatter when three stern-faced teachers walked in and informed us that a younger girl from another year’s father had died. Just like that. We were told to be nice to her and not bring her dad’s death up, then the teachers simply turned around and left.
Now, I have forgotten many of my experiences from that year. I loathed school like many children did and probably still do. I can’t tell you anything I learned in class that term. I can’t tell you any of my teacher’s names from that year, but I can remember that day. I can transport myself back to that moment, sitting in the back of the room on the wooden bench. I can relive the way the room fell silent, the smiles wiped off our faces, the eyes widened with surprise and shock, and the sadness that washed over all of us. None of us actually knew that girl, she was younger than all of us and she never returned to our school again. But I think we all instantly thought of our own fathers and how it must feel to suddenly lose them. We would later hear that her father was a police officer and killed by a car bomb in a revenge attack. Unconfirmed information of course, but shocking and memorable regardless.
Ten years later, I lost my own father while I was home from college on Christmas break. His death was also sudden, shocking, and nothing could have prepared me for it. My father was 53 and had never really suffered from illness, with the exception of annoying sinus pain and dental issues. However, that December, a fatal illness befell him. One minute he was lying on the couch complaining of a tummy bug, and the next day he was no longer with us.
My memories of that week are blurry, but I remember certain things clearly. I remember kissing his forehead on the way out that night. I remember asking if he felt better. I remember a weak smile and the brave lie, “Yes, a bit better.” I remember my mother calling to say she was taking him for tummy x-rays and denying my offer to join her. I remember going home and falling asleep in front of the television. And I remember waking up suddenly, instinctively, at 4am for no reason at all. I remember checking my phone and finding a text from my mother that was obviously written under duress, “Are you awake?” and just knowing in my gut that he was no longer here in this world. I remember calling and simply asking, “Is he gone?” and my mother wailing. And I remember clearly how I temporarily lost my mind.
That feeling of complete loss of sense, control, feeling, thought – everything, whoosh, absent. That is the single scariest thing I’ve ever experienced. I think back and wonder, how can crazy people feel like that all the time? The complete loss and void is terrifying. I sat there like a statue until my uncle and mother showed up at the house and just snapped into action. I pulled myself up, put on a brave face, and just transformed into a pillar of support for my mother who was a complete wreck. For the next three days, I stayed at my grandmother’s house receiving visitors, shaking hands, and explaining how my father died of a heart condition over and over. Nobody knew about his health problems, even I hadn’t known ‘til he was already gone.
I would learn more about the details of his illness after his passing. He had faulty valves in his heart, a result of scarlet fever as a baby. He had refused surgery when he was younger, because he didn’t want to be on medication for the rest of his life. He died because of an enlarged heart. He died because his heart was too big and worked too hard.
For three days, I didn’t cry. I smoked too much, shared stories with my family about my father, laughed at his jokes, smiled at memories, and just remembered and celebrated the life of a profoundly loved man. I always knew how special and wonderful my father was, but his funeral just illustrated it in so many shades and depths. It was a spectacular display of love, so beautiful and rich that my heart could barely contain it all. People so loved my father and that in turn made me so proud to be his daughter.
I was heartbroken over all the future experiences that had gotten snatched away from me in a second. I wouldn’t be able to discuss the books I read, the interesting things I was learning in college, the people I met, how I wanted to follow in his footsteps and become a journalist, and the laughter and jokes I’d been robbed of. My father was the funniest man I’ve ever known, or ever will know. And of course, why wouldn’t my daddy be there to dance his funky waltz if I ever get married?
On the third day of his funeral, I grew so tired of holding it together. I sat in my grandmother’s garden and howled in pain like a wounded animal. The whole street probably heard me and I didn’t care. Weirdly enough, I felt no anger nor betrayal. My father had lived a full life, by his own rules. A life that he had been proud of and he had touched so many people with his wittiness, warmth, intellect and strength. Now he was gone I felt, and still feel, like I have no right to be angry or resentful that he never sought treatment for his heart. Every person decides what path to take, and this was his choice. Somehow, I had naturally and instantly accepted my father’s death with great sadness, but great pride.
I decided to return to the States two weeks later and resume my studies. I felt like that is what he would have wanted and my mother urged me to just get on with it and distract myself. I found it hard to wake up and roll out of bed most mornings. I grew frustrated easily with people. I cried a lot. Looking back, maybe it wasn’t the best idea to leave all my loved ones behind and go through it on my own.
A month after my father died, I approached my maths professor explaining how getting to his 7am class was proving to be a struggle because of my situation. He curtly replied that maybe I shouldn’t have come back to college so soon. I felt deeply offended that this man had the audacity to tell me how I should deal with my father’s death and I reported him to the department head who soothed me and explained that I must be aware of how many students use the “death card” to get out of academic responsibilities. That didn’t make me feel any better.
Since then, I’ve trained and worked as a teacher myself. I’ve taught kids of the same age as I was that day I had my first experience with death in that sunny classroom. I think to myself, ‘What would I do if I were in that situation as a teacher?’ Having lost my dad, I would deal with it a lot differently. And I think all teachers should deal with it differently to how mine did both at school and at college, even if they haven’t lost someone.
I think both my experiences with teachers mishandling death illustrate a certain lack of sensitivity and tact. I know from experience that teacher training involves a lot of strategy, timing, planning, forward thinking, trouble shooting, but what about the feelings? What about the power that teachers have to either make a student feel like a million bucks or as low as possible? That rarely gets talked about in teacher training, or at least not in my experience.
How easy would it be to spend a little bit of time on how important psychology plays in the teacher-student relationship? More specifically, how you should approach a student who is in a state of deep emotional pain, for whatever reason that may be. How you should deal with their classmates and discuss coping strategies as a group. Death is inevitable and it is very likely that a teacher will have to deal with a grieving student at one time or another, so why not prepare them for it?
To borrow a word of advice from the great Stan Lee, “With great power, comes great responsibility”. Teachers all too often forget how influential an impact they have on their students’ lives. And as the ten-year anniversary of my father’s passing approaches me this year, I feel he would be proud that I choose to commemorate his death with an important message about being responsible with the effect you have on others.