The Student Becomes the Teacher

Some of the finest people I know are the ones in our group. I often wonder why. Were these people compassionate, warm, and calm before? Or did the instantaneous change imbue them with kindness—like Popeye eating his spinach?

We have been in this club—the one no one wants to join—since January 27, 2001, when our 31-year-old son was killed in the crash of an airplane carrying members of the Oklahoma State University men’s basketball team and staff.

As the shock gradually diminished, drip by drip, I went looking for something. I wasn’t seeking catharsis or comfort. And certainly not “closure,” the difficult-to-define term that I grew to despise.

I flailed around, a whimpering blob, looking for a bit of normalcy. I hoped my wife/sweetheart and I could return to the Ozzie-and-Harriet life we had once enjoyed at home with Will and his kid brother, Nate.

I leaned heavily on others. I was needy and inadequate. Kind people put up with me and said, “Here, give us your hand. We will help you.”

I could not see the hope that was just over the horizon.

The grief in those early days came in waves, like the cold fronts, “blue northers,” that sweep into the Southern Plains each winter along with deep purple clouds. As a child, I thought those fronts were called “blue moths.” And so the blue moth of grief became my symbol for grief.

The blue moth was a regular visitor to our house.

Before the tragedy, “normal” for me was found outdoors—backpacking trips, marathon runs, and long bicycle rides. So, grasping at straws, I decided to try the big kahuna—a bicycle ride across America.

The 36-day, 2,700-mile journey carried me over mighty rivers and mountain ranges, past mansions and grungy shanties, across deserts and lush fields of cotton. The narrow-wheeled Cannondale bicycle took me to a place where I could see the world differently— to a place of peace and of togetherness with others who shared our dilemma.

Long story short, I wrote a book about the odyssey, Riding with the Blue Moth.

A month after the book was published, I received an e-mail from a stranger.

“After we lost our daughter I had no hope,” she wrote. “Then someone gave your book to me. I did not want it, but as a courtesy to my friend, I began reading. The first two chapters were almost impossible for me to read, because your trials in the first few days were so sad and so similar to ours. But I kept at it. I laughed. I cried. I read passages to my husband and our son. I want you to know that this book has changed my life. I know now that there is a reason to live. Perhaps we, too, can be a lantern to others.”

Goodness gracious, that note opened my eyes. Me, a lantern? Me, a Johnny Appleseed? Me, once Mr. Helpless, now serving others? Once, it had seemed utterly impossible. But now . . . well, yes, the student could become the teacher. I began to speak to groups, meet with people, share our story. I have no training in counseling, but I can do two things pretty darn well: listen and hug.

The Compassionate Friends organization says it best: as seasoned grievers reach out to the newly bereaved, both are helped to heal. Those who are grieving are remarkable people. Give us your hand; we will help you.






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