As I walked into the classroom to teach a topic lesson to a class full of children, I took a deep breath and wished I could turn around and run. Never stop, just run.
The loss of my dear mum had happened just a few months before.
I carried on delivering lessons on autopilot for months. Crying on the way to school and on the way home. Hiding in the corridor, hoping no one would see. My mental health hanging by a thread.
The children did not know this. I never broke in front of them. But my behaviour management was crumbling. I carried on with this routine of crying, covering classes, supporting the children, home life and studying. Living in a neverending greyness that overwhelmed my life.
A shoulder to cry on
Finally, the thread snapped. I had to remove myself from a difficult situation at work. My head was fantastic. She offered me support, a shoulder to cry on and bereavement counselling.
I attended the bereavement counselling very sceptically. Why would I want to talk about my grief, and open the wounds that I was desperately trying to cover?
But I was wrong. It took a couple of weeks, but I eventually confided in the counsellor. She was very supportive and didn’t pressure me once. The counselling proved to be eye opening about things I had suppressed since childhood – demons that had been locked away for years.
Many people don’t find talking to someone helpful. I can see why. But I found it so relieving. It lightened the load that was consuming my life. Knowing that someone would be listening to me – and just to me – while I spoke about why I missed my mum so much.
Also, being able to take off an afternoon every week to attend counselling sessions broke the week up, making work seem more bearable. It’s surprising how one afternoon outside the school building can change the whole week.
What lies beneath
The pain of losing my mother is unbearable. It still is. The empty void in my life is enormous.
Time is a great healer, or so they say. But nothing makes it easier. Work is an appreciated distraction, if you can bear it. But I went back to work far too early. Instead of a phased return, I went straight back to it. I thought seeing the children would take my mind off my grief, but there were reminders everywhere. A song or a comment. A child crying for their own mum.
It was just before the Christmas break when I returned to work. I thought being off-timetable and all the fun pre-Christmas activities would be easier to handle than normal lessons. But the singing and nativities are tear jerking anyway, never mind when you’re an emotional wreck. I always painted on a smile for the children, but the smile was only on the outside.
Almost two years later, my nerves are frayed, but I’m clinging on to my mental health and day-to-day functioning. The feeling of emptiness can be overwhelming, and is heavy to carry around, but a supportive network of close friends and colleagues has helped to ease the pain.
From this difficult time, I will always remember a child who came up to me not long after I had returned to work. The child asked me why I looked so sad.
“I’m not sad,” I replied, overcompensating for the lie with an excessively cheerful tone of voice. “Look: I’m smiling. Look at my face.” I beamed at him.
He gazed at me. “But your eyes aren’t smiling, Miss.”
However we may try to hide our pain from the children, they can still see what lies beneath.
The author is a newly qualified teacher in Staffordshire