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What I Think I Know

I went to bed on Friday night, looking forward to the next morning: breakfast and an estate sale with a friend, home by 11 AM to watch the first game from the Stanford Invite. One of my alums is on Colorado and I was anxious to see him play.

I woke up around 2 AM to a text from a friend in Chicago about the Carleton tragedy. Texted back and forth with him about the details and the devastation. Texted with my Mamabird player and posted something on Facebook. Saw the CUT symbol start to pop up as profile pictures. Messaged with another friend from Paideia. And never went back to sleep.

I suspect what I experienced that night was repeated in some form all over the country. I am one degree of separation from these young men and my heart aches for those who are much closer. I lose my breath when I think of their parents.

On the surface, my experiences as a teacher, as well as my 60 years of living, have “prepared” me for events like this. I have been trained in how to help young people through this kind of grief. Suicides, murders, overdoses, fatal illnesses, and, of course, car accidents have taken away members of our school community in Amherst over the years. Grief counselors are usually brought in and teachers comfort those who do not trust these outsiders. We observe moments of silence before the morning announcements. Sometimes school closes for the funeral.

I was a teacher through all of these tragedies, as well as 9/11. In some ways, the grieving takes on the same shape each time.

Parents show up and find their child, taking them out of school for the day or week, in an attempt to protect and shelter. I walk through the halls, finding the best friends circled up on the floor near their missing friend’s locker. They are listening to music, sharing stories, crying and hugging and, at times, laughing. They find strength in each other. Other students, who are not as close with the deceased, hover in the same hallway, watching the pain of the inner circle and feeling immense pain themselves.

Then there are those who were not personally touched by the tragedy and simply do not know what to do. They do not want to pretend. They do feel grief but are hesitant to display it because they don’t feel “enough” of it. They don’t want to be rude; they feel vaguely guilty. This group does not attend the funeral, but they still make time to hang out with each other, day after day.

I remember one student, a sophomore boy, who did not know how to react to the death of a senior who had died from a heroin overdose. The school was in the grip of grief that day and no classes were held. Students were allowed to go wherever they wanted. He stayed in my classroom all day, standing by my desk, watching quietly as older students stopped by to talk. He said very little, but observed and absorbed the painful stories that unfolded.

So this is what I know for sure, I think. Everyone responds to grief in a different way and every response is legitimate and true and deserves to be respected. Even though I have been “trained” to help people cope with sudden loss, no amount of training can prepare anyone for how people will act or feel in times like this. This loss is bigger than all of us; this could be any of us. I can only humbly offer this comparison of the two communities I know best.

The people closest to these young men from Carleton — their family and friends sitting by the lockers — will mourn and celebrate and shudder with sobbing. They wonder how they will be able to survive each moment of each day. Some will become consumed with memorializing the fallen and that focus will ease their pain for a while. A few may find themselves laughing too.

You may hear from your own parents this week, as they remind you again about how dangerous it is for college players to travel as they do. They most likely want to swoop in and take you back to the safety of home. Understandable.

For those whose emotions are triggered by this tragedy, even though they may not know these students well, my heart goes out to them too. If they are still grieving the death of someone close in the past, it is natural to have those feelings surface quickly and intensely when faced with a new tragedy. They may even want to talk about their past loss instead of what just happened. Love them for being able to share. Loss is loss is loss.

And for those on the edges of our community, who have no direct connection to the victims, we understand your reluctance to visibly grieve. Instead, hang out with your team. Tell stories, laugh hard, and revel in the presence of those whom you love. You honor James and Paxton and Michael in this way also.

As you go through the next days and weeks and months, no matter what your connection to Carleton, I respectfully implore you to be the most compassionate person you can be. Grief is intensely personal and responses change daily and sometimes instantaneously. This event has shaken our community to the core and compassion for everyone, no matter who they are, will sustain us.

Whether you are planning tributes or making arm bands or writing poetry or simply throwing a disc around with a teammate, be aware of those around you who may be suffering in unseen ways. Look for that sophomore boy, the one who stood by my desk for 6 hours, and ask him how he is feeling. He still may not know what to say. But you should still ask.

  1. Tiina Booth

    Tiina is an Ultiworld columnist. She retired from teaching English at Amherst Regional High School 4 years ago and retired from coaching their varsity boys team this past September. She still runs the National Ultimate Training Camp and offers clinics on coaching, training and sports psychology to teams of all levels. She is a co-author of Essential Ultimate and one of the founders of the Ultimate Coaches and Players Conference. She will be coaching the UMass men's team for the 2014-15 season.

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