September 2016, our lives changed forever. Disclosure of sibling abuse required immediate action, without much assistance or clear direction. After our oldest was discharged from a residential mental health facility for her behaviors, she had lost most of her junior year of high school. Being credit deficient by an entire semester on a block schedule leaves few options to obtain the proper academic credits to graduate time. Instead of returning to public school and using an option pathway to graduate with her peers, she chose to get her GED. She passed with flying colors. When the graduation ceremony was held for GED students, I learned of it from a friend. Our daughter chose not to tell us of this event and did not attend at all.
I never imagined that one of my children would not complete the traditional high school experience. In the whole scheme of things, I guess it’s not all that important. She obtained her GED with only a 10th grade education and got decent score on the ACT. She secured part time employment and has taken a few classes at a technical center. While I am proud of these accomplishments, it’s not what I had in mind. As a parent, preparing for prom, getting senior portraits, ordering the cap & gown, mailing announcements, and graduation are milestone events for us, every bit as much as they are life accomplishments for our children.
As and educator, I attend graduation every year. Last year, as I walked in with the faculty and watched the graduating class enter and take their seats, I realized the growing realization and ache in my stomach that I would not see my first born child walk across the stage as part of the 2018 class. I watched as my co-worker presented the diploma to his own child and stifled tears realizing that the same experience that should have been mine the following year would never be.
Are these selfish longings? Probably. However, they are the reality of loss and byproduct of grief.
As we start the official countdown for the Class of 2018, I am filled with many emotions. As a teacher, I experience these emotions each year, watching “my” students complete this milestone, walk across the stage, and begin their new life into the world of higher education and/or the work force. I hold back a few tears and my heart swells with pride, watching students who became part of my heart shake hands and accept their diploma, walk off the stage, and place their hand over the matching hand print on the graduation banner for a photo. I am both excited and anxious for the next steps each of the students will take in the months and years ahead.
This year, as I accept senior pictures from students, purchase graduation gifts, arrange senior awards, and prepare to bid another group of students farewell, I find myself experiencing grief. I’m not saddened by my daughter’s accomplishments. I do not see her educational pathway as “lesser” than her peers. I tell myself that it is the same, but in my heart, I am grieving for the loss of what should be. If things had followed the “proper order” of life, if she hadn’t made the choices she did, if the system wasn’t broken and we had found the right facility for her rehabilitation, things might be different.
Selfishly, I’ve thought of alternatives to attending this graduation. I’ve even considered slipping in a little late and leaving a little early, but I won’t do that. This group of students deserves my support, congratulations, hugs, well wishes, and respect as much as all the others, perhaps more. This is the cohort that my daughter should be a part of. This is the group of students who greeted me every day while my world fell apart in 2016. These are the students who came with tear filled eyes when they learned of the tragedy that happened to our family. They shared stories of the warning signs my daughter had exhibited for years, that none of them recognized as warning signs of mental illness. Some of these students stepped up alongside my youngest daughter as she struggled to return to school. These are the students who presented me with 21 Christmas cards, many reflecting on the trials they watched me walk through day after day. They filled my heart with encouragement and hope during the darkest months of my life.
I will attend the graduation ceremony of 2018 with as smile on my face, but I know some of my tears will not be the happy kind. I will do my best to process my grief before the big day. My tears are not for what is now the past or the uncertainty of the future, but rather the realization and final acceptance of a chapter of my life that should have been, but was tragically stolen by decisions that were outside of my control.
Nonetheless, I will continue to hold my head high and move forward. I will continue to raise awareness. I will speak out for hope.