The Right to Grieve

“Lucy, do you remember the boy I told you about on the first day of class? The one who played guitar?” My co-teacher asked me. With his strong accent I couldn’t quite understand him. “Guitar?” I asked to clarify and mimed playing one. “Yes,” he said, “He died this weekend.” I stopped. And stared. Hoping that just like the word guitar the word died was lost in the confines of his accent. I didn’t misunderstand. I heard correctly. Daniel Felipe, one of the students I had gotten to know best during my time at school, was dead. He had been killed in the streets. I stood up, walked to the bathroom, locked the door and cried.

Colombia is changing, of that I am certain. It is no longer the murder capitol of the world nor the country ruled by cartels. Incidents such as this aren’t normal anymore. At least that’s what a friend here said. These types of killings, at this age, are rare, unless you live a lifestyle that invites it. Which he didn’t. So it was random. And for that reason even more tragic. There are so many times I have forgotten where I am because this does not feel like the ‘third world country’ that I was warned about entering. Much to my surprise, I have felt safe. And yet with this incident I was hit with a harsh introduction to reality.

While I have had a few encounters with death in my life, murder is something that is completely foreign to me. The thought of a ninth grade boy getting killed on the streets is something that I can’t fathom. Not in the bubble that, up until this point, has been my world. When explaining what happened to my fellow foreign teachers, I said, “This kind of stuff just doesn’t happen in the States.” And then I paused and backpedaled as my privilege smacked me in the face because it does. It is happening now in cities across the U.S. There is violence. There are murders. There are tragedies just as senseless as this one. It happens in the world, it happens in the States and it happens here.

One of my first weeks in Colombia during a cab ride, the driver, upon learning I was from the U.S., warned me about the violence in my country and passed on his condolences. My world was not that world. I have been sheltered from the violence and for that I am grateful. But now here I am exposed to my first tragedy, living side by side to the dangerous streets that I never crossed growing up and feeling uncertain as to how to move forward. I didn’t know how to react after becoming distinctly aware of my privilege or how to navigate a situation that is so unfamiliarly tragic surrounded by people who have seen it before.

I was uncomfortable admitting my sadness, hence the reason I locked myself in the bathroom and refused to leave until the last bit of red had faded from my swollen eyes. I didn’t feel like I had a right to the tears. I was not Daniel Felipe’s friend, nor his family. I had only been his teacher for a month. My tears hadn’t been earned by years of knowing him and yet it was clear that after only a month not only him, but all of my students had had an impact on my life. Outsiders couldn’t see their impact though. So as Don Orlando, the school coordinator, made the formal death announcement to the students during the last ten minutes of my final class, I tried to hold back my tears. This wasn’t my school, this wasn’t my country. I was a guest in all of it. Because of that, I told myself that I had no right to be impacted. And yet there I was, mentally willing my eyes to serve as barricades for the tears trying to burst through, afraid that my students, or my co-teacher, would see me crying and afraid that they would wonder why.

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One of my ninth grade classes

“El estaba una victima del violencia en nuestra pais,” Don Orlando said over the loud speaker. He was a victim of the violence of our country. His body had been found that morning in an abandoned street. He had been robbed and killed walking home the night before. He played five instruments and the rumor was that he was murdered for one of them. Around me some students cried, others were silent and some poked each other and made faces as if this was not a big deal. I still held back my tears. It was only when I rushed out of school at the end of the day and started sobbing on the street corner that I really allowed myself to let go.

In talking to friends this past weekend I told them that I adored my students. I told them about my students who had had babies and then returned to school. Their commitment to their education was impressive. I told them about the older tattooed boys who waited outside school to pick up my students, their girlfriends, on motorcycles. A foreign feeling of concern and protectiveness for these girls passed over me every time I walked past these unfamiliar boys. And even before he died, I told them about Daniel Felipe. One day in class he took me through his sketchbook showing me the beautiful drawings that he had spent months pulling from his head to put on paper. He showed me pictures of his instruments and told me about an upcoming performance of his in the city. I told him that I was planning to go. I am sad that we will both miss it.

What I told my friends was true. I adored my students. But it wasn’t until days after our conversation when this happened and one of them was lost that I realized that I really, really did care. Deeply. These kids, who I had been so hesitant and resistant to teach due to their age, were amazing. And I loved them. And I am so sad that one of them is gone.

And yet I still felt like I didn’t have a right to the sadness.

But who owns sadness? Who dictates who gets to feel what and, in bad situations, who shares what percentage of the pain? Unfortunately, in our world, there is more than enough sadness and grief to go around. Grief cannot be owned, divided or scaled. Sadness is just sadness. Grief is just grief.

You have a right to all of your emotions. To your happiness, to your joy, to your sadness and your pain. You have a right to feel. And to cry. And to experience whatever emotions you need to experience. Feelings are feelings and one of the few things in life to which everyone is entitled. But for some reason, I was having such a hard time allowing myself that right.

The next morning was surprisingly harder. I woke up fine, went for a run, ate breakfast and started to process in the only way I knew how: writing. And then I got a text from my mentor. My normal classes, with my normal students, were cancelled that day for the funeral. She asked if I could come in to work with the younger grades. Contractually, I was not obligated and emotionally I was not capable, however, I fell into my people pleasing pattern and was afraid of claiming the sadness that I felt but did not feel like I had earned so I responded, “Yes, of course,” even when every part of me was desperately yearning to say no.

For the rest of the morning I cried. Relentlessly. I kept telling myself that there was no reason for me to stay home instead of going to school. Clearly I was ignoring the evidence that was flooding down my face and drowning my clothes. I imagined myself riding the bus to school and sitting through five classes with students who I didn’t yet know all the while trying to pretend like everything was fine. It felt like torture. Despite that, I was still planning to go in because I was so used to stomping on my feelings while soldering on and, in this case, too ashamed to admit my sadness to those who I thought deserved it more.

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A poster made by Daniel Felipe and his classmates presented to me on our first day of class

In the midst of my resistance, I called Maureen who helped me realized that I was allowed to be sad, what happened was sad, and that I needed to take care of myself in whatever way I could. On my way out the door to school, still crying I might add, I ran into Rowan, another foreign teacher. He walked towards me and gave me a huge hug. Then, he told me what I hadn’t dared think myself: I didn’t have to go in today. With his words, and the coaching of Rob, another fellow, I called my mentor and shook as I explained that I was affected by what happened and needed to take the day off to take care of myself. Upon admitting my sadness and owning my grief, I melted onto the kitchen floor in a puddle of relief and tears.

My students are incredible. And if I love them, which I do, then I can celebrate them, worry for them and, in the most tragic of circumstances, mourn for them. And even if I didn’t have the privilege of knowing or loving them, I could still mourn for Daniel Felipe, the incredibly talented ninth grade boy who was senselessly and tragically killed in the street. Everyone has a right to that sadness.

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