When you have to talk about tragedy with a teenager

A gray Tuesday with dark clouds hanging heavily in the sky is exactly what you’d expect out of a day spent talking about death with someone too young to have to figure out how to understand it.

I’d kept my crumpled rain jacket in the passenger seat all day, in case the exact moment I stepped out of the car was when the clouds released.

I’ve never been great at talking about death – most especially with a teenager – someone who, one can only hope, had never experienced this kind of loss before.

We lost classmates when I was in school, classmates – with an s. We attended more memorial services for people our age than any kid should have to. It was usually the result of a car accident on a rural road.

Temporary memorials were placed at the site of their deaths. We cried. We hugged. We left notes in places we’d decided belonged to them – lockers, intersections, their parking spaces in the school lot. Their desks remained empty. In the back of the yearbook, we knew what to expect – a black and white photo taken on a picture day before any of us knew what was ahead. Underneath it the year they were born, a dash and the year they died.

We mourned and counselors were brought in to try to help us process it. I imagine this is how it goes at most schools when a life is lost. A community of adults tries to help kids understand and move forward.

I found myself back near the intersection of death and youth on that gray Tuesday. A dozen tables filled the lobby of a local high school, each covered with rolls of paper filled to the edges with notes to a track & field coach who’d died in a fiery wreck on his way to school. He’d coached his track teams to state championships, but the trophies took up far less space than the notes from students, parents, athletes and colleagues thanking him for the love and kindness he showed.

I’d seen all I needed to see. My small notebook was filled with details like the color of the paper, the number of times he was named coach of the year and how many pairs of track spikes were left hanging on the fence by the stadium where his team practiced.

I wasn’t there to pressure kids to talk to me. There were adults with whom these kids are comfortable with who could do that. A story isn’t more important than respect for someone’s grief.

I was nearly to the door when a teacher stopped me. She called a girl’s name and I watched as a blonde with a stoic expression turned toward us. The woman asked the girl to speak with me – to share her story.

I’m not sure who was more uncomfortable in that moment. I watched the girl’s face morph from stoic to sad as she considered it. The woman urged her – saying she knew she had something important to say.

I gave her an out.

I told her I was going to take care of something and would be back in a couple of minutes.

“If you’re sitting on there when I get back, we can talk,” I said, motioning to a bench by the school’s front door.

I gave her an out, but as I approached the front door of the school again a few minutes later, I could see her legs sticking out from the bench.

I could tell she was nervous. She’d brought a friend along for moral support. The three of us walked together into the first open room I could find – an auditorium. The large space was void of people, but full of chairs. We grabbed a couple in the corner.

As we began to talk, her voice was steady. She knew what she wanted to say about a man she’d known since she was just a seventh grader. She told me how much she’d grown and could see him in herself as she approached her upcoming graduation. A couple of times during our conversation her friend spoke up encouraging her to “tell her what you told me earlier”.

I listened as the girl’s eyes welled up while she talked about this man she’d loved. She’d run for him for six years. He’d known her through some of the most important moments of her life so far. She’d known big achievements and tough disappointments under his direction and recognized in him the ability to keep a positive attitude about each. She recognized the way that attitude had rubbed off on her.

I teared up with her. We talked about the track & field team I coach. More than a few times I saw her take a deep breath to steady her voice and imagined a few of the athletes I’ve become close to over the past couple of years. I thought of my high school coaches and how I would’ve ached to lose them.

I took notes as she explained how the track wouldn’t feel the same without her coach. We talked about the younger kids she’d be leaving behind after graduation – those who are even less equipped to understand sudden, tragic death.

She poignantly and carefully described a man who could make any kid feel like a champion.

Sometime soon she’ll find herself in a room with a few hundred or so people who felt his life in their own way. It’ll become more clear that he’s gone and she didn’t get a proper goodbye. She’ll learn that life somehow still continues without him.

I won’t be there for any of that. This young woman taught me how to talk about tragedy with a teenager. But the reality is I only knew her for a few minutes in a couple of brown chairs in an empty high school auditorium.


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