Gwyn Schneck, MEd, has a unique set of skills allowing her to guide students into promising opportunities and outcomes Read More
I hung up the phone with a very bad feeling in my gut. Mr. Jones called from his doctor’s office. He sounded strange, cryptic at best. He was leaving the doctor and wanted to come straight to my office. I made a hole in my schedule and waited for him to arrive. From doctor’s office to guidance counselor’s office—this did not sound good.
Minutes later Mr. Jones sat across from me with tears pouring down his face. His daughter, Sally, was a junior in high school.
“I have just found out that I have 6 months to live. It’s cancer. No one else knows. I came straight here,” Mr. Jones stated as bravely as he could through tears. I did not know how to respond.
He slowly continued, “This will be the hardest on Sally. I want her to have someone at school to help support her through my death.” I sat flabbergasted; there were no words. We sat in silence for several minutes.
When I was able to speak I asked, “Tell me about Sally. Why do you think this will be the hardest on her?” I knew her to be an excellent student, fun loving, and resilient. Of course losing a parent would be horrendous at this age, but I didn’t understand why he was more concerned about Sally than his wife or any of his other children.
“Sally was sexually assaulted several years ago by a family member. It has been very difficult for her and I am the one she has leaned on the most. Of course, she loves her mother and her mother has been very supportive of her. However, as her dad, I am her knight in shining armor. I don’t know how she can cope without me.” With this statement, he broke into sobs.
Over the next hour we spoke in sporadic snatches of time. Both of us fluctuated from crying to composure and back to crying again. I never cried with a parent before, but on this day and in this moment it was all I could do. I knew I had to do everything in my power to help this man say goodbye to his children, and especially Sally. We made a plan for talking to Sally and supporting her through the next weeks and months.
I wish I could say that Mr. Jones was healed and is still living today. But unfortunately everything the doctors said came true. In late September, we started this journey together: a student, her family, and her guidance counselor. Eventually I pulled in the teachers and the school nurse to help support Sally. Mr. Jones began chemotherapy.
On a day in early October, I was called to the front office of the school. There sat Sally with a pained expression on her face. I quickly went to her, “What’s wrong?” through gasps of air she said, “I can’t breathe.” I ran for help to the school nurse; she quickly produced a paper bag. Sally began to improve immediately as she inhaled and exhaled into the paper bag. As she regained the ability to talk, she told me her class was having a discussion on sexual abuse in a novel. She began to have a panic attack. She made it as far as the front office to call her dad. As she and I were talking quietly I felt a huge presence behind me. Before I knew it, Sally was in the arms of her father. I was honored to see a child melt into the safe and secure arms of her dad. I now realized what Mr. Jones was trying to tell me on that unforgettable day in September. Sally depended on her father not only for strength, but for safety and security.
In late October the family took a last vacation together and Sally missed a week of school. This was one time I could support an absence during the middle of the semester. Sally came back strong and ready to move ahead. However, it was not long before she broke down again. In November during the week of Thanksgiving Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Sally’s parents, traveled alone to France where Mr. Jones was dipped into the healing water of Lourdes. This strong Catholic family was determined to try every option of healing available. They had arranged for other trusted family to stay with the kids. One of the days that Sally’s parents were gone on the trip to Lourdes, France, I was called to the school nurse’s office. There I found Sally lying on one of the beds, drawn up into the fetal position. She was shaking, almost seizing, with loud wails like I had never heard. At this time I didn’t know what to do to console her. The nurse tried to help her, but to no avail. I sat down on the bed beside her and held her in silence as she cried a cry I never before heard. We were able to call the family member that was staying with Sally and her siblings, and she came to take Sally home for the Thanksgiving holiday. I have never forgotten witnessing this moment of utter and complete human despair and grief. I desperately wished I could have done more, but there was nothing more to do.
The end of the semester came and the holidays went. Sally’s grades were not all the usual A’s that she knew, but everyone at school encouraged her that colleges were sure to understand. She seemed to be getting stronger, supporting her mother more than in the fall. The last time I saw Mr. Jones was in January. He had lost a tremendous amount of weight, but made it to the school to say thank you to me. Again, I was speechless. The love, care, and grace this man displayed never ceased to amaze me.
He was gone by the beginning of March. I attended the service and sat numb as I thought over the last six months. The service was packed, splitting into another room with a television monitor. I stayed long enough to give Sally and her mom a hug. It was obvious to me that the man, who had touched me with the love and concern for his special daughter, had touched many people the same way. I saw that Sally would never lose the love of her father. His example was all around her and in the hundreds of people he had touched.
Sally graduated the next year, with a college scholarship and plans to be a teacher. I still treasure a picture of me with Sally and her mom at graduation. Sally’s father demonstrated and modeled a love that was strong, protective, and never ending. This father-daughter love was learned from Mr. Jones’ Father above. Our God’s love is strong, protective, and never ending. However, the love of our Heavenly Father is such that we can cling to it no matter what is happening to us in this life. We never have to grieve the loss of our Heavenly Father. Ultimately this is what Sally and her family did—they clung to their Heavenly Father while they grieved the loss of Sally’s Dad.
This was the year a family taught me about the human spirit in love, grief, and loss. The fact is that true love never dies, but as humans we all must grieve through physical change, loss, and death. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the well-accepted model of grief in 1969. I have found this model of five stages of grief to be absolutely true. The Five Stages of Grief are:
The tricky part of the five stages is that they are not neat and easily checked off. Rather, each member of the family will take a different length of time to work through each stage, and each member of the family can be struggling in the middle of a different stage. Grieving is a messy and difficult business, but it is something each and every human being will experience time and time again. It is not unusual or weak to need outside help from a therapist to help move a family through serious grieving. The last stage of acceptance is when the family can begin to talk about the person or situation with fond memories, even laughter. It takes time and work to get to this point, but it can and will happen.