In the Classroom: The Language of Loss, Processing the Absence of Loved Ones
Goals and Objectives: For students to examine different ways of illustrating loss through literature, and write their own personal experience of loss.
This topic is weighty, and you may consider making this a multi-session project, being mindful of the deep emotion these exercises may unleash in response to an absent parent. We also strongly suggest taking care to make sure the space is safe before delving into this lesson. If you are passionate, but nervous, and need some extra pointers and/or help with scaffolding this topic, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Warm Up: What Does Absence Look Like?
Prep the classroom by cutting cloud shaped out of black construction paper and hang on the walls- the larger in size, the better. Handing each student a piece of chalk, ask them to graffiti the clouds with words and images that express the absence of a loved one.
Examining Loss Through Literature:
Read the story Daddy by John Talbird and engage in discussion.
With students, examine and discuss the ways humans process and cope with the absence of a loved one using the list below. After understanding each coping mechanism, task students with matching excerpts from the story Daddy by John Talbird with the coping mechanism it illustrates.
Ways of Processing and Responding To Loss
1. Pandering to the image of who we think we should be to coax the person back into our lives
A. “Daddy would often say, “Waste not, want not,” when he was here. I wanted to please him, so I’d clean my plate. Daddy said before he left, “I bought that viola so you could learn to play Bach,” and I’d play for two hours each day after school. By the time I was eleven, I could play the Viola Sonata No. 2 frontwards and back.”
2. Telling lies to the person we lost to protect ourselves and people we love.
B. “Daddy calls and says, “What did you think of the watch, Squirt?” I tell him I put it on and haven’t taken it off. I actually put the lid back on the box and stuck it in my underwear drawer and it’s been there since. This is what I wrote in my diary on the evening of my birthday celebration: An uneventful day.”
3. Telling the person we lost lies or exaggerated truths to shock and hurt them.
C. “Daddy says he wants to meet my fiancé, Larkin. A series of comments run through my head: He’s black. (Or better, Persian (that means ‘Iranian’)). Or The medication seems to be working. Or something like He’s got a glass eye or He’ll be out of jail any day…”
4. Imagining details of life of the lost person after they left, obsessing over what their “new” life must be like.
D. “He took his family to see an installation about this miniature, extinct animal and the replica they had was posed on the eraser end of a pencil. Afterwards, he took the wife and kids out for dinner and ice cream… I imagine people crowded into a little room lit by a hanging bulb, gathered around a shoebox to look down onto the smallest mammal ever, dead now more than fifty million years.”
5. Expressing deep anger and fantasizing about punishing the person we lost.
E. “Sometimes, when Andre’s been drinking, he describes the ways he’d like to torture our father to death. He describes stopping up his anus with a cork and feeding him canned beans until his stomach explodes. He describes stabbing him in the back with an eight-inch blade. He describes letting his pit bull, Roscoe, at his testicles covered in dog food.”
6. Acting unhealthily towards self as a coping mechanism after loss.
F. “I just have to eat a little more and then I’ll be full. Each day, my skin stretches to accommodate the food I’m eating: hamburgers, fries, ice cream, Vienna sausages, fried pork rinds, candy bars, cotton candy, pizza, burritos, cake…”
7. Lack of ability to cope with loss leading to deep trauma and continued cycle of loss.
G. “I don’t have the heart to tell him that Momma has been dead for years. It would be a bitter sort of comfort to know that her death was quick and probably not that painful. I don’t tell him that I was hanging wet sheets in the back yard when I heard a pop like a firecracker, yet shorter, sharper.”
Task students with identifying a person in their life who is absent: a parent, a friend or an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, etc. Folding a paper in three columns vertically, label each column with one of the following (the instructor may want to create a template for this and xerox):
In the left hand column, write:
1. “Why I loved this person.”
2. “Why this person left.”
3. “How I felt when they left.”
In the middle column, respond:
1. Write a response to the question in the right hand column, “Why I loved this person.”
2. Write a response to the question in the right hand column, “Why they left.”
3. Write a response to the question in the right hand column, “How I felt when they left.”
In the right hand column, share a moment:
For each prompt in the left hand column, write a clear memory. These moments should be small exchanges, a unique habit of the person, an action that described a feeling. We are looking for things that show us about the person and experience of loss, rather than tell us.
Using the information on the columned paper as a guide, write a short story or essay about your experience. Feel free to change names, characteristics of the person who left and fictionalize as much as needed. Looking at the responses to loss identified in the “Daddy” story, pick one way you did respond, or wished you responded with and write the story. Instead of telling us exactly what happened in order, use Daddy as inspiration to tell the story through small moments and exchanges.
Post-Critique: Peer Edits
In pairs, students should critique a partner’s work. Where can the metaphor and imagery be pushed? Is the piece clear? Is there a reason this story is being told? What feeling does it give the reader. Does it push the reader’s imagination?
Giving students a rubric or a check list grading sheet based on their identified “what makes a good poem” elements will help guide the process.
Using the advice given by peers, students retool and revisit their piece, adding imagery, metaphor and simile in areas identified and clarifying problematic/unclear language. It is helpful to scaffold this process into “draft one” and “draft two,” so students can see their own growth.
Students share out in front of the class. It is always a positive experience to have students build in an element of positive feedback. Some ways to guide this process:
– Create a performance environment: Identify a student host to “lead” the “open mic.” Each student is introduced with a brief biography. Hand claps or finger snaps set the stage. Assign a student to “DJ,” intro-ing each poet coming to the “stage,” or front of classroom, with appropriate music.
– Sharing aloud: After each poem shared, ask for a few students to verbally share out parts of the poem they enjoyed.
– Index Cards: Have a list of guiding questions on the board. Ask students to give specific, positive feedback to each piece shared aloud that can be collected. At the end of class, distribute the index cards to each poet.
– Assigning “positive feedback” partners. Each student is assigned a fellow classmate to “grade” or “positively assess” a peer on their work using a rubric or pre-planned feedback sheet.
Beyond the classroom
Create an experience for the student work to live beyond the four walls of the classroom. Consider compiling a photocopied “chapbook” of the poems, asking an artistic student to illustrate the cover, or a blog where the poems can live and be shared with parents, school administrators and peers. Another option may be a lunch time “poetry open mic” where the students act as the “feature,” having a few brave class members share out their class pieces to a wider audience.
Related Article: Daddy
Written and Developed by Caits Meissner for Well&Often