To remember this sweet little girl, our school organized a beautiful ceremony on the day of her funeral service. We had a half-day so that anyone who wanted could go to the service. Our school goes from preschool up through high-school, and this tragedy affected every level. Throughout the day, the high school, middle school, and elementary grades came together and released pink balloons in honor of our student. Prayers were said, memories were shared, and on the count of three, the balloons "went up to Heaven." As a kindergarten, we had a separate ceremony at the end of the school day. Earlier in the day, each student was given a clear mailing label to decorate with pictures and a message. They wrote messages to her and it was heart-wrenching to listen to and watch them create each message. They said things like "I miss you," "I love you," or just simply "Love, ___." During our balloon ceremony, each student received a pink balloon and then stuck his/her message onto the balloon. When we released the balloons, everyone was quiet at first, but then the students started cheering and even chanted her name. If there could be a "good" way to do something for a situation like this, it felt like we chose the perfect way.
I had found it hard to find anything to help explain in kindergarten terms what had happened. Our guidance counselor found a beautiful book that kind of talked in general about what happens when someone dies, but I found that my little ones needed a little more. When I was in second grade, I lost my baby brother to SIDS. He was three months old. I did not know how to cope with or understand what had happened. Through the years, what I found to help me the most was the way I visualized him. The biggest questions and problems I remember having were "is he okay" and "where is he?" My mom bought several books about death and Heaven, and they really spoke in 7-year-old terms. I saved one of those books and was able to locate it in time to share with my kindergarteners. It's called Angel Babies written by Michelle Knudson.
This beautiful little book starts out by showing how the angel babies wake up each morning with the sun. They find a way to carefully float down to the earth to start their day. Some ride a rainbow, and one is even floating down on a balloon (it tied in so well with our ceremony!). They take care of the animals in the forests and play with our pets in our backyards when we're not there. It says that only the animals can see them, and when it's time to go back home, a horn sounds and they start to get ready to go. They come and kiss little children goodnight and send them sweet dreams. Then they float back up and go to sleep on the clouds to get ready to visit tomorrow.
Talk about perfect...it's written as a poem, but the words are on the students' level. We read the book together, and then it sparked a discussion about loved ones we have lost. We talked about our friend who we lost, but then the students started to share about pets that have died, and a few family members too. It seemed to put the subject in their perspective. Some of the students didn't know the student we lost very well at all. They didn't really have a connection with what was going on, but those children were able to relate on their own level - like with a pet they lost.
After we were finished our discussion, each student picked someone to make a card for. The majority wrote a card for the student we lost, but all of the students included someone they had lost or knew who had died. They all drew angels, and some asked if the little girl who passed away was taking care of their pet who had died, or playing with their grandma. It was so sweet! I had to just sit back and take in all of the love in my classroom at that moment. I have never witnessed a 6 year old create something as beautiful as what they made that day. I understood the phrase "my cup runneth over." Because at that moment, my heart runneth over. Oh you can bet I teared up, and one of my sweet little girls said, "it's okay Mrs. Johnson. I bet she's watching us right now." All of you teachers out there know how difficult it can be sometimes to find the right materials to use or find the perfect book to share to get a concept across in a way that your students can fully understand. I struggle with that all the time in my math and writing lessons. But on this particular day, as I struggled to find the right materials and books, it took one student's words to prove that I got my message across. She said "I bet she's watching us right now." That's exactly the message I wanted to teach them that day.
We could have never prepared for that week. There was nothing that we learned in college that prepared us for this; no instruction manual for "how to help your students grieve and understand death." But our entire school has reached out to each other, and we have started the grieving process together. My school has always felt like a family, but after this experience, I am blessed to work in such a school.
...be at peace, and all will be well...