Comforting a family in crisis

I was doing duty after school early last year when a father came up to me, shaking and upset. He told me his wife had just passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. He wanted to inform his son and daughter of the news, and to do this in my office, with me. The father didn’t know how he would manage and he needed someone.

I was shocked and numbed. I am not a trained counsellor, nor qualified in helping a family through something like this. But I am a Catholic teacher, who has dealt with many and varied issues with families, students and parents over many years. I didn’t quite know how to deal with the situation, yet I felt privileged and blessed to be able to help this young father and his children in their time of need.

I will never forget those 10 minutes.

The children could see their father was distressed and were looking around, unsure of what he was going to say. He spoke quietly to them: his son, who was in Year 3, and his daughter, who was in high school. He told them heartbreakingly about this sudden tragedy that would change their lives forever. I didn’t say much – leaving what needed to be said to the struggling father. My role was just to be there; to comfort this family in crisis. The room was filled with tears and sadness, and we had a moment of prayer too.

To support a family in need is a blessed moment. For me, it was one of my hardest times as a Principal. Yet sadness and distress occur frequently in large communities like our schools. Within my first six weeks as a Principal in a previous school, a student passed away. Earlier last year another mother passed away unexpectedly, leaving a husband and a young family. Being a father myself, I can only imagine how difficult and traumatic these experiences must be.

My father passed away very suddenly when I was still at school. It was obviously a very difficult time in my family’s life and I can remember the amazing support of my friends and our schools. My personal experience of something so tragic helps me to support families and students under enormous stress or turmoil. So often, the local Catholic school is the only place for families to turn to.

Leading a Catholic school community is a privilege. Striving to build an exciting and dynamic school environment where children develop to the best of their ability is uplifting and rewarding. Yet the role of a Catholic school leader also brings many challenges. The financial strain that many young families face is often discussed over a box of tissues in the Principal’s office. Parents who are struggling to come to terms with a child’s medical concerns or major behavioural issues need someone to vent to or seek support from. The breakdown of a family unit or death of a loved one are never easy.

For me, the fact that so many families know they can come to the school and talk about a troubling issue speaks volumes about the role of Catholic schools. Parents know we have a deep concern and care for their child. We have our faith to rely on when we experience setbacks, challenges or heartbreaks. To know that God is always with us and that we are never alone is transforming.

The two families from my school who lost their Mum are faring well under the circumstances. Our school counsellor, the parish community and a stable school routine have helped the children, while the ‘Seasons for Growth’ Good Grief program is excellent for students who have experienced significant change or loss.

God’s healing comes in many ways.