Last month, I got a call from Dr. Ryan, the school principal for Ocean Township Elementary School, where my son Connor just finished the 4th grade. Connor had a great year, but the last few months were up and down because his teacher, Mr. Unger, was out for an extended period of time. Mr. Unger had an ongoing battle with gallbladder cancer and was on maintenance chemotherapy. And, as chemo is wont to do, it often made him unable to work. He had planned on retiring after the end of this year.
Sadly, Dr. Ryan’s call was to inform me that Mr. Unger had passed away the previous evening due to a blood infection. Dr. Ryan was calling the parents of all of his students so the kids could hear the news from their mom or dad. I thanked Dr. Ryan for her thoughtfulness and swift action, and then I offered my condolences to her. After all, my son lost his teacher, but Dr. Ryan also lost a colleague. She was really grateful to hear that. I don’t think a lot of folks made the gesture.
I hung up the phone and told Connor the bad news. He took it hard; he had a close relationship with Mr. Unger and had worried about his health. Connor lost his grandfather in 2011 to bladder cancer, so he knows how this story can end. At that moment, we were all in a taxi to the airport, returning from a trip out of town, and Connor put on a brave face because he was afraid it might cause a scene at the airport. We told him it was fine to cry, but still, the tears never came. We flew home on Southwest—an airline with an open seating policy apparently designed to reinforce the notion that air travel these days really is like taking a bus in the sky—and thankfully, the gate agent let Connor and I get on early to ensure that we could sit together. The little guy needed his dad. Even then, he didn’t really show that he was upset about Mr. Unger, but he did tell me, “Dad, on the outside, I look fine. But on the inside, I am breaking down.”
It wasn’t until we got home that he really let his guard down. We sat with him on the couch as he sobbed, and at one point, he hugged me so hard he nearly gave me a chiropractic adjustment. Up in his room, Connor wrote “RIP Mr. Unger, died 7/21/13” on the chalkboard hanging from his bed. He turned on Minecraft (a video game where you place blocks to build things, kind of like a virtual Lego set) and built a little memorial to him. But it was in a journal entry on his phone (which he shared with me) that best showed how much he was hurting:
I have been betrayed by life. I was told that he would be okay and when I got the news about his death I just broke down inside of my self. I am in a state of unimaginable pain in side my self. Please have god bless his kind soul in the afterlife I wish to attend the funeral for Gill Unger my favorite all time teacher
We often see kids grieving when we are also grieving ourselves, so we don’t really notice the depths of their suffering. But it is deep in a way that it never quite is for adults. For a child, life is about beginnings, not endings, which is why the biggest endings hurt so badly. Life must end for us all, but kids don’t believe that yet. Even if they know it, they still don’t really believe it. If only they could all go just a little bit longer before they did.