The year of 2016–2017 was a year like no other at Holland Christian Schools. It was full of events, programs, new initiatives, and a site visit for accreditation; but despite all those happenings, in many people’s minds 2016–2017 will be forever marked as a year of pain and loss. As a school community, we were forced to rely on each other and on the Lord for strength in ways that we had never experienced, and we shed plenty of tears along the way. However, I’m confident that years down the road we will look back and realize that the bonds forged during our trials have shaped a unique and deeper community for us.
In June of 2016, I was on a summer trip to Israel with other Holland Christian faculty, staff, and administrators when we received word that one of our high school students had been lost in Lake Michigan. His body was ultimately found a few days later. On the morning of September 26, I was sitting in my office when a local police officer came in to tell me that one of our high school teachers had been in a serious car accident and might not survive. He died the following day. On March 18, one of our 4th grade students passed away after battling a rare brain tumor for over a year. On April 27, one of our 7th grade students passed away the day after being diagnosed with a form of leukemia that usually affects the elderly. Then over Memorial Day weekend, our high school technology specialist died at home during a father-son weekend with his five-year-old boy. Finally, on June 20, a 6th grade student passed away after sudden bleeding in the brain began a week earlier.
Four student deaths and two staff deaths.
In one school year.
Loss, grief, and pain of this magnitude are almost unfathomable, and they touched all segments of our school community: elementary, middle school, and high school. Our collective suffering brought out our best and our worst, but we learned a lot about each other along the way that helped us come together as a body and that may be helpful to you as well.
Keep the routine, but adjust the expectations. This became a mantra for our high school faculty, staff, and students during the fall weeks following the loss of their beloved friend and colleague. It was tempting to call off school while we grieved, but we received great advice to the contrary. Continuing with our school schedule provided comfort to both teachers and students in the rhythm of the day, but we allowed ourselves the flexibility of special assemblies, counselors on hand, and colleagues at the ready to step in for anyone who needed a break. Keeping the body together amidst the sadness even allowed students to lift their teachers up in ways that required an authentic, adult, relevant embodiment of their faith. A common reflection on the week noted that while there may not have been as much normal class work accomplished, there was a whole lot of Christian education going on.
Treat each situation with its own respect and dignity. It’s normal for us to have close relationships with some people and lesser ties with others. When multiple tragedies piled up for us at Holland Christian, it was likewise normal for certain segments of our school community to feel particular losses more keenly than others. Quickly, however, we came to understand that for the families and circles of friends most affected by each death, it didn’t matter for their pain or their comfort how prominent their father, husband, son, daughter, brother, colleague, or friend was within the school community. Their whole world had just been turned upside down, and as a school we needed to provide equal care and support for them. That meant similar schoolwide communications about visitations and funeral services, and it meant similar time and space for students and staff to attend. It meant providing support and counseling for those affected, regardless of how many or how few they were in number. We affirm people’s innate worth as image bearers of God when we take the time to care for or remember them well.
Point to hope. As Christian communities, experiences of death and loss are rubber-meets-the-road moments in which we find out whether our gospel beliefs and the hope to which we profess are real. It is good and proper for us to recognize and validate the pain we all feel, but as mentors for our students and as leaders for our campuses and communities, we can’t let the story stop there. Scripture tells us of Christ’s victory over sin and death, and we must remind each other of that truth, even when our hearts are still mired in the depths. It’s likely that within your school community you have people who may be especially gifted at articulating that hope. Lean on them for advice and expertise, especially when your own words are failing. I would never advocate for minimizing the sadness and grief of others, but your words of hope may very well be the thing people need to keep going. Some particularly helpful resources for our students, especially the younger ones, were the book The Invisible String by Patrice Karst and the organization Ele’s Place (www.elesplace.org), which helps grieving children and teens. If you’re too far away to take advantage of their counseling or grief group services, their website still has loads of helpful resources.
Just show up. Tragedy does strange things to people. Many of us have instincts to fix broken situations and bring peace to those in turmoil, but we must not put too much pressure on ourselves in these instances. You don’t have to say the perfect words to take away the pain someone else is feeling in order to bring them some relief. Your mere presence, your prayers, the meals you prepare, or your comforting arm around their shoulder might seem like small or insignificant acts; but they are examples of how the body of Christ can provide solace for its hurting members, not all at once but just enough to make it through a little longer—the same way God cares for us in our times of need. Reminding people that they don’t need to be perfect in their support can spur them on to supportive actions and love by just showing up. In fact, these reminders can prevent so many of the harmful, empty clichés that come off as dismissive to people who are hurting.
Grace, grace, and more grace. It’s entirely likely that in the midst of dealing with a tragedy, let alone multiple tragedies, people will make mistakes with each other. After all, it’s tough to be at our best when we are hurting, exhausted, or feeling pulled in a million different directions. You can alleviate some of those points of friction if you are humble and quick to ask for forgiveness when you’ve overlooked something, left someone out, or offended in any way. Likewise, extend grace to others who might frustrate or hurt you. As we’re reminded in Proverbs 15, “A gentle answer turns away wrath” (v. 1).
Teachable Moments in the Midst of Questions
Whether we realize it or not, harmful elements of the prosperity gospel have infiltrated our thinking and our beliefs. We found this to be true as students and adults alike inevitably started to wonder what our school had done to deserve all our tragedy last year. As understandable as those questions are, they arise from a misperception about our lives of faith. Too often we believe that if we give our hearts to God, He will bless us with health, success, and ease. In actuality, the Lord doesn’t tell us that if we follow him, everything will go the way we want it to. While tragic moments are not the time for scolding, they can provide some great opportunities to reinforce God’s call for us to be faithful to Him and His promise to draw us close and care for us, even when we don’t understand what’s happening or when we feel like we can’t make it. After all, it was in the desert that God shaped His people, and we can trust that if our school communities draw near to Him during desert times of tragedy and loss, He will shape us as well.
Life after Tragedy
At the end of the 2016–2017 school year, the Holland Christian faculty, staff, administration, and probably the community as a whole, were exhausted. We were desperate to turn the page for a new beginning.
But that doesn’t mean forgetting.
We’ve made it a point to speak often of these loved ones, telling stories about how they affected us. We’ve held special events that coincide with their passions. And those opportunities have provided the beginnings of healing for their families, their friends, and for our school system as a whole. The road has many miles to go, and we may never completely get over what happened last year. But the Lord has held us close with just enough to make it through, shaping us into individuals and a community who follow Him even more faithfully.
Dan Meester is in his fourth year as the Superintendent at Holland Christian Schools in Holland, MI.