The principal called me into her office yesterday. I am a preschool teacher at Nathan Davis Elementary School, a public school on the southwest side of Chicago. I love my four and five year old students fiercely, but being a preschool teacher, especially while grieving, is draining and demanding on the best of days. On the worst of days, I sit in my car in the school parking lot sobbing, face in hands, wishing to be somewhere else. I am a puppeteer and boo-boo kisser and story teller and kid therapist, moving so quickly from solving one problem to the next that I sometimes hear a literal ringing in my ears by the end of the day.
The principal, a middle-aged woman with long, dark hair and a soothing voice, had presented me with an official-looking letter the week before. It listed the date of each of my absences and early dismissals since the death of my brother, calling them “excessive” and “misaligned with the values of the school”. Many of the dates listed were days I left school an hour early to go to grief counseling, at my principal’s urging. The letter finished by advising me to bring a union representative to the meeting.
“Am I getting fired?” I asked bluntly, when the principal handed me the letter.
“No,” she said, a warning edge to her voice. “But this is serious.”
Now I sat across from her, wiggling my toes in my boots to keep from tapping them and wiping sweaty palms on my tights.
“How are you, Jamie?” she smiled, but only with her mouth.
I had been crying for hours over the five-month anniversary of Kyle’s death; the twentieth date of each month always falls upon me like a dark cloud.  I was in the kind of mood where you listen to sad music just to make yourself sadder, and then feel like every word is speaking directly to you.
I nodded in response to keep tears from spilling over.
“I got my carpet shampooed this weekend,” she began, and I thought, Are you fucking kidding me? I couldn’t think of anything to say back, just listened to her talk about the huge difference this had made in her life, even though it had been such a hassle getting her kids out of the house.
“But I want to switch gears now to talking about you,” she went on. “What’s been going on? I know at the beginning of the year, you were having trouble with your brother, but what has been going on lately? I see you’re still missing days and leaving early.”
I blinked. You will need a reference from this person, I repeated to myself over and over before responding.
Something I have learned since Kyle died is that everyone is walking around with something eating away at a piece of their insides.  I am stunned by the number of people who have reached out to me these past months (and I thank God for each one of you) to share with me their own personal losses and pains, their own variation of I have been where you are standing. It is easy, when you’re grieving, to pity yourself uniquely, to fall into a pit of isolated despair, to convince yourself this is the worst thing that anyone has ever experienced.
But the truth is, everyone has lost something or someone in one way or another. Everyone has felt alone, has cursed the sky, and many, like me, have even wanted to jump from the edge of the world’s spinning orbit and float into the blackness of outer-space.
This was the thought I tried to channel in my response. I chose each of my words carefully.
“I don’t know what your experience with loss has been,” I said. “But I can tell you, it’s not a linear process. I love my students, and want to be there for them every day I can. I am doing the very best that I can.”
Five months earlier, my principal held me in her arms and prayed over my sobbing, shaking body in the moments after I first heard the news of Kyle’s death.  Now she looked at me suspiciously.
There are not many things I am grateful for about Kyle’s death, but here is one: I will forever hold a new level of empathy for people in pain. I am trying to be glad that my boss has obviously never experienced pain to an extent that allowed her to truly empathize with me. It’s a like there’s a secret club for grieving people, one that no one ever wants to be a part of, but everyone who is, is grateful that the club exists.
I told her I would not be returning to the school the following year and somehow she looked surprised.  The meeting ended shortly thereafter, a tap on the wrist in the grand scheme of things, but I have not been able to stop thinking about it.  When do our responses to grief switch from sympathy to impatience? When do the questions start shifting from Are you okay? to Why aren’t you normal yet?  I will never be normal again. This is my normal now—moments of laughter and fleeting joy mixed with many more moments of shouting at the universe. I am healing, and I am breaking again every single day.
Right before our meeting ended, she asked me why I was leaving the school at the end of the year.  I told her that this had been the hardest year of my life, and that I needed to be with my family.
“I understand,” she said, nodding.
I guess you don’t, I thought, my anger softening. I hope you never really do.