It’s okay if you’re the only one not talking. It’s okay if you don’t want to acknowledge anything. It’s okay if people tell you talking will make you feel better but it doesn’t. It’s okay if you want to cry.
It’s okay to deal with death, and I know what it’s like. My grandmother and my namesake, Carolyn Prosser, died of pancreatic cancer three years and twelve days ago. Although Mr. Vaught’s death is similar, I never actually knew him; my grief is secondhand. I know that he was a great teacher and that his students, my friends, loved him. I find that I am obligated to reflect on grief because I know that not everyone has dealt with it before. It’s scary and terrifying and horrifying. But, just as much, it is a learning experience.
Ironically, grieving a death takes a lot longer than death itself. The five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — are not linear and they’re not fleeting. They can be recurring or they can never happen; I, for instance, never dealt with bargaining or depression, but I had a lot of denial.
And denial, though the easiest stage of grief to define, is the hardest to deal with.
For a time after my grandmother’s death, I still had trouble referring to her in the past tense: “My grandmother is a photographer,” “My grandmother lives in Ohio.” I avoided saying the c-word, cancer. (Often, I still do.) One friend mentioned how he just couldn’t see this happening to Mr. Vaught; another friend said she expected to see him when her kids came to Manual in 20 years — that he was “eternal.” I remember feeling like my grandmother was eternal because she was my grandmother and that Walter Cronkite was eternal because he was Walter Cronkite and that Steve Jobs was eternal because he was Steve Jobs. In a sense, that’s true. Those who love us (and whom we love, I believe) as Sirius Black once said, never really leave us.
Still, it’s hard to deny Mr. Vaught’s death since we keep being reminded of it — in a letter from Mr. Wooldridge, on Facebook, on RedEye, by other teachers. But I think it’s important to point out that these reminders of his death are not trying to remind us that he died, but rather, that he lived, and lived well. We don’t want to remind anyone of the brain cancer. We want to remind everyone of his passion for helping kids and his dedication to Manual. I, who had never known Mr. Vaught, learned about his inspirational quotes: “Don’t get rid of your butterflies—make them fly in formation,” and of course, “own the moment.” Similarly, in my grandmother’s death, I learned about her life. At her funeral, several couples came up and introduced themselves as couples who had met because of her; all of them were now married. Grieving can help you learn the best about a person. It can make you feel comforted that, even though they died, they lived a virtuous life.
But it’s okay to feel angry, too.
Death at the hands of a murderer causes distrust for humanity and hate for another human. Unjust death because of the legal system makes you hate the legal system. But what (or who?) is there to hate when death is caused by an illness? You can’t blame the person, because they didn’t cause it. Some people can blame God, but to others, God is never blamable. But you feel like you have to blame something, because it must be someone’s fault; some horrible being must have allowed this to happen; principled permission seems impossible. With a medical death, it’s never just the medical reason itself. It isn’t just
cancer. It isn’t just leukemia. It isn’t just AIDS. It’s the doctors, too, and the hospitals. I blamed my grandmother’s doctor because he gave her a certain medicine that (although it was necessary at that point) put her into a coma. I just hated him. He was the cause of all of my grief, even if he really wasn’t.
Shifting the blame alleviates guilt, but none of us are guilty for Mr. Vaught’s death. I would like to ascribe a supernatural cause to cancer, a cause far removed from my own influence, but I cannot. The fact that cancer is a human thing makes grieving even harder because it reminds us that death is inevitable. But being forgotten is not inevitable. We must “own the moment” to be remembered.
Which is why acceptance is necessary — but not yet. And that’s okay.
It doesn’t even matter which loved one is taken from you — your cat, your mom, your teacher — I can promise you that you won’t want to accept it. Who would?
But when you accept someone’s death, you realize that they have changed you and that you can change other people, too. Since we remember Mr. Vaught, we remember that his classes have made us better people. We now know how to own the moment. We have most certainly not released our butterflies, but they, like us, are now flying in formation to success.
Carolyn is a senior in HSU at duPont Manual High School and a staff writer for ManualRedEye.