Talking with Students About Loss

For my day job, I work as an English teacher. I work at a small school that caters mostly to children, but we also have a fair amount of senior citizens who come to our school for hour-long conversational lessons. These classes were started as part community service and part marketing scheme. My boss charges very, very little for these classes, and the students get coffee and whatever kind of lesson they, as a group, decide they want to have. Afterward, they tend to gossip with their neighbors, and talk about how nice our school is, and then word-of-mouth makes it so most of the children in our vicinity (and some even from cities away) sign up at our school. It’s a fairly good system.

I teach about thirty women and one man, most of whom are in their late 50s or beyond. It’s a matter of course that death comes up quite a bit. In this last month I have had so many discussions about death, in so many different ways, that I have started to think about loss, and how the environment of the classroom really changes how I react to it in a more casual setting.

I’ve been lucky. Here I am, almost thirty and death has only ever been on the periphery of my life––a grandfather I never really knew; a brother when I was too young to comprehend it all; a coworker I’d trained but never became friends with; a friend on Facebook that was in my same writers group.

When it comes to discussions of death in the classroom, sometimes it’s best not to talk about it at all. One of my students recently lost her twin sister to cancer, and it is all she can do to come to class and not cry. Normalcy is what she wants, and so every week she quickly shares a brief sentence and then passes the floor to the next person.

But it is a little tragic, because the sentence she always shares is “My sister in Kobe died.”

Now, I’m aware in this case that her English level is lower than some of my other students, and she hasn’t learned the softer language––but the others have, and those sentences tend to put a pallor on the whole room, until no one is sure how to proceed. In those situations, I can only say “I am so sorry for your loss” before moving on to the next student and intercepting any questions they have about it grammatically before they actually ask them (because this has happened before). In this case, and any case like it, the student’s feelings are the most important thing to me. Learning is secondary.

However, in other cases, talking about loss has been appropriate, and I would like to share some of the ones that have happened in my class here. I should say, just to have it out there, that this post is in no way a how-to or something of that nature, because I believe that every situation is different, and a teacher should use their own discretion when speaking about death and other sensitive issues.

National Tragedies

The sinking of the MV Sewol was a shock for people in Japan. I had a student who was going to be taking the ferry the weekend following the tragedy, and all of my classes all week wanted to talk about it.

628x471If this is your first time hearing about it, the MV Sewol was a ferry that sunk off the coast of South Korea on its way to Jiju Island in April of this year. A majority of its passengers were middle school students and their teachers. Of the 477 passengers aboard the vessel when it began to sink, around 288 died, with 16 still missing. The tragedy of this event is that the captain and his navigation crew abandoned the ship after ordering the students to stay where they were. This month, three of the crew members have been charged with murder.

My students wanted to talk about this as they wanted to talk about the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, the Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting, the Boston Marathon Bombing, and even more recently, the killing spree at UC Santa Barbara. These events are a shock and strike a chord in everyone. As a teacher, I have to try my best not to get overly emotional, and keep the class atmosphere lighter than it would be had I been speaking to friends. Sometimes, it is hard not to start crying, especially in the case of school shootings, because I am a teacher, and I know what I would do for my students, and it is utterly terrifying.

When talking about national disasters, I usually let the students direct the conversation. We talk about the events, and the fallout, and I try very hard to keep politics out of it. Sometimes this is hard, for instance in the case of these awful American incidents that left my Japanese students whispering amongst each other “America is so dangerous” and “Everyone must own guns”… because this is the image that gets passed off to the world, and this is not the America I know, or the America I support. These situations are not the place to defend my country, however. It is the time to mourn the loss of those that were killed. Of course, I mention the American ones because they are closest to me, but other countries get similar responses. “We offered to help Korea look for those children, but they refused our help!” says one student, with a tone I’d prefer to nip in the bud. But then another says “Yes, but we refused their help during the nuclear crisis.”

Usually, these kinds of conversations have no end––there is no end to a discussion like that. There is only the clock on the wall, and the bell that marks the end of class.

Natural Disasters

Natural disasters are common enough here in Japan. Between the earthquakes, typhoons, tsunami, and fires, people understand that to live on the Ring of Fire is to accept Mother Nature isn’t going to try too hard to make your life easy.

800px-Pacific_Ring_of_FireThe most recent, large disaster in Japan was the tsunami that hit Tohoku right before the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis began. The pain of this tsunami still echoes in the hearts of all of Japan’s surviving citizens. In some ways, I think the tsunami is more important to them, as a nation, than that of the nuclear crisis. Tohoku saw its entire presence on the earth washed away, and is still a ghost town, many who left not wanting to return. Why would they? To go back to a hollow skeleton like that would be to live in the graves of so many they knew. TEDx made a wonderful, terribly sad seventeen-minute documentary on the disaster, which you can view here:

While I wasn’t teaching at the school I’m at now when the disaster hit, I did have a private student. She was studying for her GRE, so she could go to America and pursue a masters degree. She was sunny; happy, and though her English wasn’t terribly good, she didn’t let it deter her.

Then after March 11, 2011, some weeks after, I got a sobbing call from her. She needed to stop taking my lessons. Her uncle and his family, who lived in Tohoku, had been unreachable since the disaster. There was nothing to say––the energy at that time, the fighting spirit of the people, was broken. There could be no ‘it will turn out all right’ or ‘I’m sure they’re okay’. You couldn’t say something like that. I had a friend who helped (and continues to help yearly) with relief efforts who said via Facebook “Don’t ask them ‘how are you?’ Don’t. Their spirits are crushed. It only reminds them.”

Instead, I could only console her that I understood, that there was in no way any problem with her stopping her lessons. It was a weird thought, then, and now: that she had called me to apologize. That she had called at all. This is the depth of consideration from the people here. It broke my heart. I never heard from her again.

Death in Old Age

Thankfully, I don’t need a heading in this post for premature death. And while I could talk about the many, many stories my students have shared while misty-eyed, I’d rather end this post on a lighter note. So I’m going to talk about Mie, and her friend Tomoki. Not their real names, but it lends to the tale.

Mie is in her mid-60s. She is a firecracker and is wickedly smart. But some months ago, she told the class about her friend Tomoki, who was diagnosed with cancer.

Tomoki made the decision to not get treated. She felt that her life was better spent enjoying travel and in the pursuit of happiness, rather than suffering through chemotherapy and staying in a perpetual state of drugged consciousness.

Tomoki went on a world cruise, but got sick much more quickly than the doctors estimated. She returned to Japan, and began making preparations for her funeral.

Funerals in Japan are quite different from those in America, and this one was something I’d expect from a novel or movie.

After she died, each guest was given an invitation, and when they arrived, each guest received hand-picked stationary. The service went as normal.

However, the real surprise was when Mie went back home. In her mailbox was a letter. The letter was post-marked on the same day.

The return address? None. The stamp? A shooting star.

Inside, Mie found a handwritten note from Tomoki. I wouldn’t dare to copy what I remember here, only that Tomoki talked of their friends, and how happy she was to be chatting with them all again––and that they all would be waiting with smiles for Mie when she came to join the ‘star cruise’ too.

Image Credit: NASA
Image Credit: NASA

The class loved the story, and it got everyone thinking about how they will prepare their own friends and family, should they have the luxury of time. And of course I cried, because Mie reading that letter seemed to make Tomoki fill the room, and I could then feel even more profoundly her loss.

For nearly ten minutes, the class had nothing they could say. Just as there is no end for the discussion of loss, there is also no appropriate segway.

The next student had nothing to talk about but the turnips growing in her garden.

…and yet, that is a perfect example of what it is like to teach a conversational class.

11 thoughts on “Talking with Students About Loss

  1. The story of Humanity, the fragility of life, the temporary nature that we are here for our visit, is around us everyday. It is in the paper, on the news. It flashes on the TV. The word travels from a friend or it is heard while standing in line at the store.
    It is everywhere,
    However, it is the Artist, the writer, who can capture the event, repeat the words and create the tone they wish by how they carefully choose how to express what they have captured.
    Once again, you have touched a sensitive nerve that is personal to us all and yet, we may feel as distant from it as we would from a far away star.
    There is a certain mastery of telling the story without tearing the soul. Gently, you let the words and phrases and events sink in to us like a subtle spice.
    Well done. Thank you for bringing these lines together for us.
    (Oh, yeah and it distresses me that you do this so well and you make it appear so easy. I hope to someday tell a story as you do.)


  2. It’s hard to deal with loss. I wonder if your students talk about it because one they have no one to talk to about it and two it’s healing/comforting? I’m so happy you can stay calm when engaging them. My emotions would take over. When I returned to my second graders after being sick for seven weeks they had lots of questions. I had to speak in a manner that didn’t scare them. I also did not ignore their concerns. You did good sharing.


  3. I wasn’t able to finish the whole post, right now, because I have to head out, and I probably won’t really be back around the house at all today, so I don’t know that I will make it back to the post or not.
    I want to have something to say, here, but I don’t. Having been through a number of tragic deaths, I know that it’s intensely personal and there’s nothing that anyone can say or do to make it better other than just be there. People have a hard time with that, though. They want to “fix,” and it’s a thing that can’t be fixed. Just sitting with someone while they mourn may be the hardest thing a friend can ever do for a friend.


  4. You wrote so well about these very delicate situations. I taught adult ESL classes for many years. Because we live in a small area, all levels of English and people from all countries were in the same class. Inevitably topics on social problems, politics, and religion came up, and allowing or encouraging people to talk about what was important to them without stepping on someone else’s toes was sometimes a challenge! Fortunately most people were sensitive to the feelings and opinions of others, listened respectively, and learned from each other.


  5. This is such a moving and beautifully written post, Alex. In describing the way you interact with your students and address the difficult and painful events that arise in their lives, your compassion and kind heart shine through your words. When someone we care about is grieving, it can be a struggle to know what to say, or how to comfort them. The grace you’ve shown here is a wonderful example to us all.


  6. This was so interesting. It’s hard to say I enjoyed a post about loss and death, but I did. I enjoyed hearing about what you do for a living, the students you teach, the stories they tell. Death and loss are a part of life and yet we don’t really talk about it that often. So it’s interesting to hear what a conversational class would say, what people in another nation think about these things and think about the US. What an interesting life you lead, Alex, as well as being such a gifted writer.


  7. This reminds me of studying Mandarin back in high school. One day my Mandarin class was first thing in the morning, and we were just beginning to find out through word of mouth that the father of one of our classmates had died the previous night in a helicopter accident. Some friends of that classmate were visibly distressed. However, our Mandarin teacher, a native speaker from Taiwan, was helpless as to what to do, explaining that “us Chinese” aren’t good with emotion. She ended up calling up one the school psychologists, and we spent the class in (English) discussion of loss.

    This is a great post, and the story of Mie and Tomoki is beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting how your teacher responded. I know in some situations over here in Japan, I have to explain sometimes that Americans are very “direct” when dealing with emotion/opinions, whereas Japanese etiquette would suggest a far more subtle, almost silent approach. It’s one of the hardest disconnects between cultures, which I’m sure you’re aware of.

      The easiest way to showcase that is that we say “you” all the time in English… yet, you are HIGHLY encouraged to NEVER use ‘you’ in Japanese, as it’s considered rude. You either use their name, or speak of them in the 3rd person…. even if they’re right there. It was a hard habit to overcome.


      1. That’s interesting about Japanese etiquette. I spent part of my junior year of high school studying abroad in China and living with a Chinese family, and there was definitely a disconnect when it came to emotions and voicing opinions, although in my experience Chinese people used “you” a lot in conversation. What it really came down to was being more silent on the subject of emotions.


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