After my mom died, I took grief leave. It made me a better teacher.

When I came back weeks later, I was determined to share what I had learned about loss — and showing up for those who are grieving — with my students.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

The summer of 2023, filled with travel, reading, family time, and relaxation, was just what I needed after a long and tiring year of teaching. I was feeling refreshed and ready to return to school, this year as a curriculum assistance teacher for special education.

Then, on Aug. 17, four days before school was to start, my husband, 4-year-old son, and I headed to the mountains to spend a long weekend with friends, squeezing the life out of summer.

My mom was dead by Aug. 19 at 11:30 p.m., exactly 30 minutes before my birthday. The day before, she had gone in for what we thought was routine surgery. We have a family history of brain aneurysms. I had the same surgery four years earlier on my unruptured aneurysm, and my mom had a similar procedure on her first unruptured aneurysm 12 years ago. Those recoveries had been quick and painless.

Headshot of a woman with brown hair wearing a black dress.
Teacher Lauren Barrett (Courtesy photo)

This time around, my mom was fine when she first got out of surgery, sending my dad home and reminding me to have fun on my weekend trip. Then, out of nowhere, she had a hemorrhagic stroke, slipped into a coma, and never recovered.

Over the next few days, battling deep grief and disbelief, my family and I somehow managed to plan a funeral in a different state, pack, and drive to West Virginia. On Aug. 24, before the funeral even took place, I got this text from my department chair at my school: “Hi … I hope you are doing well. I hate to bother you but can you let us know what your plans are for next week?”

I was not well. I was anything but well. I was 34 and had just watched my mom die. I had to tell my 4-year-old that the grandma he saw almost every day was never coming back. We were in the middle of adopting a baby — a baby whom, now, my mom would never meet. I watched my strong dad break down over his wife of 38 years. My younger brother, who would not have his mom at his wedding, was also inconsolable.

Was I supposed to be doing well? As for next week, when I was expected back at school, my mom would still be dead.

I tried to put that text message out of my mind while I stood next to my mom in her casket for four hours as people paid their respects, as I sat through the funeral mass, and as I delivered her eulogy in front of a large crowd.

But the question remained: What was I going to do about teaching? Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t return to teaching — at least, not yet.

I teach high school, and my teenage students have a lot going on themselves. Some of them are battling their own grief and mental health challenges. I feared that I couldn’t provide the academic and social-emotional support they deserved while my own grief was so raw.

Grief, I told my students, isn’t something we need to fix.

—  Lauren Barrett

My family deserved me, too, as we learned to live without our proverbial glue and our rock.

Most importantly, I deserved me. I deserved time to reflect on my mom’s selfless life. I deserved time to grieve.

Luckily, when I told my administration I needed time off, they were supportive. I have been at the same school for 13 years, so I felt I could advocate for what I needed. I realize, though, that not all teachers are in the position to take an extended, unpaid grief leave, either because their administration is unsupportive, or because financial and logistical hurdles make it impossible.

I wish our society treated this time off as a necessity, not a luxury, because the often standard three days of bereavement leave is a slap in the face to teachers everywhere. I ended up taking off nine weeks, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made during the worst time of my life.

When I returned at the start of the second quarter, I was still immensely sad. But by then, I had gained deep insight into grief and loss — something I was determined to pass along to my students. I wanted to destigmatize the conversation around grief, to make it less awkward, because it is something everyone had experienced or would experience.

On my first day back, I wondered how my students would respond when something triggered my grief. How would they react to my dark humor? What if they saw me crying? Despite my nerves, I had vowed to be open, honest, and vulnerable with them. When I told each of my classes what had happened, the students were extremely quiet — and high schoolers are rarely quiet.

I explained why I couldn’t go back to work immediately and how it’s OK not to be strong all the time. I mentioned some of the things that helped me, like journaling to my mother, joining a support group, exercising, and connecting with others. Grief, I told my students, isn’t something we need to fix; it isn’t something to “get over”; and it isn’t linear.

I also shared with them what I learned about showing up for people who are grieving: How saying nothing is hurtful. How the person grieving doesn’t want you to fix them. How allowing someone to just be sad is powerful. How showing up for other people is a big part of life.

I told them how my mom and I had spent a lot of time relishing each other’s presence. I said that, in this class, we are going to talk and listen to one another — not hide behind screens.

I let them know that some days I would be especially sad, but every day, I would do my best to show up and be a bright spot in their day. I reminded them to do the same for others, because we never know what other people are carrying with them.

When I stopped speaking, my students remained silent.

Then, I added, “Let’s have some fun.”

The other day in one of my classes, I overheard one of my students say, “This is the only class I enjoy coming to.” And I thought to myself, “I enjoy coming here, too.” We are showing up for one another, learning lessons planned and unplanned. That’s all we can do.

Lauren Barrett is a high school special education teacher of deaf and hard-of-hearing students, a former cross country coach, a writer/author, and a full-time mom to an amazing 4-year-old. She is multi-passionate and works hard to help all people become their best selves and build positive relationships with the people around them. She blogs at Lauren Barrett Writes.