BY DR. TIFFANI KOCSIS, HIGH SCHOOL ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL
This remarkable high school chapel talk speaks to the heart of a timely but difficult topic: in order to be fully present to each other and response-able to the world’s deepest needs, we have to face down grief. It’s been a difficult year at Campbell Hall, but with people like Dr. Kocsis helping, we are becoming a closer and more authentic community. – Julian Bull
These last few weeks have been tough. For Campbell Hall - it’s been a tough year and we’ve only just made it through January. I had intended to speak on something else but over the weekend, my gut kept telling me to face this topic head-on however hard it may be. Most of you know that public emotion isn’t my norm. So I’m going to do my best, pardon the notes, and please be gentle.
We’re entering February, the month associated with love, having just heard the news of the passing of a sweet baby boy in our community who fell to an illness his tiny body just couldn’t handle. Unexpected and tragic, we grieve for him. A few days later, a helicopter crash took three young basketball players, their parents, a coach, and a pilot. Many of you lost a hero. Their untimely deaths left families, friends and our city in mourning. With them, we grieve. In talking with some students, these events have brought back to the forefront the grief they feel over the loss of a dear friend and of a classmate’s wonderful brother. With their families and friends, we continue to grieve. This year I’ve had a student lose their grandfather which shook him to the core. There have been injuries, illnesses, heartbreaks, and tragedies we don’t even know about. Our community has been dealt a lot, and we all continue to grieve.
I was very lucky. I didn’t experience the pain of real grief until I was in my 20s. I had a bumpy childhood coming from divorced parents and a dad who wasn’t really invested. I dealt with heartbreaks and struggles, disappointments and times where I thought my world was ending. But never really truly did I understand what it meant to grieve until I lost my grandmother. See my grandmother came to live with me and my mom when I was only 4. She watched me after school and when my mom was away. We played cards and cribbage till the sun went down and were the best of friends. She got sick while I was in college and passed away a few years later. My family, particularly my mom and I, never really processed what her passing meant to us. We would stifle the tears and didn’t speak about it; this is true to this day. The pain was, and remains, suffocating. The most unfortunate part of it- I have spent 15 years hiding behind the pain of her death instead of celebrating the joy of her life.
In my late 20s, my best friend’s mom, my second mom, was diagnosed with cancer. She had some great years, but after an unexpected stroke, she never recovered. I moved in with their family because I wanted to give them time with her. I cooked and cleaned, did the grocery shopping and managed her errands. On the night she died, all three of her kids were out. I laid in bed with her, she was under hospice care and unresponsive at that point, and we watched her very favorite game show network. I left her room and told her the kids would be good, I’d watch out for them, that she didn’t need to worry about them. She passed shortly thereafter. My best friend arrived home at about 3 am and collapsed into my arms. It’s a moment I’ll never forget, and the second time I lived real grief. The difference this time was that I allowed myself to let the emotions out. In crying and being angry with and for my second family, I let go of my own pain. It still hurts, but it’s easy to laugh about the silly things she did and appreciate the warmth she brought to my life. Similarly, in actively taking a support role, I knew I was making a difference for their family and that too helped heal my fresh wounds. This is the moment I learned how I best process grief.
From my experience, grief is hungry. It wants to consume you, eat away at you until you don’t recognize what is left. It’s fed by taking something from you. It preys on your laughter, your light, and your optimism. Because of this, it’s easy to lose yourself in your grieving. It’s easy to buy into the hunger of grief- to give away your joy and be angry at the unfair circumstances that can appear out of nowhere. It is ravenous and insatiable at times. It is cruel and powerful, a beast lurking in the little corners often unseen but most certainly making its presence felt. To have a chance against it, we need to starve it of these things it wants so badly to take from you. We need to force ourselves to reclaim from it the little doses of happiness until grief has nothing left to feed on. Because it is those little things that you allow to creep back in, those laughs, those smiles, those brief joyful moments, that will move you forward.
To be clear, I am not encouraging you to ignore your pain. Pushing it aside only allows it to develop a sneakier game plan. Ignoring it lets it lurk around you until you aren’t ready and it can pounce. The pain of grief is real. It is tangible. It is downright awful. You should take your time to acknowledge it. Feel it. But don’t let it take you forever. Because often, it’s the deepest pain that empowers you to grow into your highest self.
Late last week, a student sent me a card for the baby’s mother. He hasn’t had her as a teacher here, in fact, he’s never even met her. But he offered such a kind message of hope and love it was inspiring. This student has leaned into his best self through his own pain. See, he is a member of the freshman class and has felt deeply the loss of Hart. He has lived true grief. But each day I watch him channel joy into all he does. He is kind and friendly to everyone- high fives all around. Through his pain, he has given kindness to someone else because in his words, “it was the right thing to do.” He didn’t shy away from it-he faced it head-on. He honors his friend Hart by spreading love in his name. I’m convinced he is healing his own wounds by tending to another’s.
Earlier this year, we watched a family turn an unthinkable tragedy into activism. Forming what may be the largest group on campus, his sister educates and inspires young people to fight against driving under the influence. They’ve organized a movement on campus and in the larger community. They’ve spread awareness about an issue close to them and many families. They still hurt. I’m sure it’s hard to get out of bed some days. I’m sure it’s easy to get angry and question why him. The pain they endure does not cease. But it also does not consume. I’ve seen her smile and laugh, look toward the future and celebrate her time with friends. They spread hope for a better outcome for another family by channeling their pain into action. I’m certain their wounds are healing by serving others.
We’ve seen makeshift memorials spring up all over the city. Athletes taking penalties to honor a fallen friend. Strangers in conversation sharing stories of the first time they saw him play and talk about the dreams of a young girl. The pain is real and the loss is immense. But, I believe that by coming together, the wounds of those trying to make sense of this tragedy will start healing.
Your grief path is yours alone. No one else can walk it for you, though they can walk it with you. I know this community is strong, you are strong. You will grow and heal through time and on the other side is a newer, wiser, braver and more powerful version of yourself. Grief will give that to you in return for the time you spend with it.
So, in this moment, this very hard moment in time: Lean in to each other, love each other. Be kind to one another and to yourself. Reach out to someone you think may be struggling. Practice self-care and ask for help if you need it or don’t know if you need it. There is no weakness in that.
Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet, said, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” I hope that while these wounds are open, you find the peace to allow the light that surrounds you to heal you. And more so, I hope you will choose to be the light to enter someone else’s wounds and help them begin to mend.
Dr. Tiffani Kocsis High School Assistant Principal
The Rev. Canon Julian P. Bull is the third head of school of Campbell Hall (est. 1944), an Episcopal school in Los Angeles, California with 1130 students in grades K-12. He earned his Bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College, his Master’s in Philosophy from Boston College, and his Master’s in Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary. Canon Bull is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church.
Prior to coming to Campbell Hall in 2003, Rev. Bull served as Head of Trinity Episcopal School in New Orleans and as the Assistant Dean for Academic and Student Affairs, Dean of Students, Chair of the Diversity Committee, and Director of the Senior Humanities Program at Albuquerque Academy. He has served on the Boards of the National Association of Episcopal Schools, the Independent School Association of the Southwest, St. James’ Episcopal School, the Louisiana Children’s Museum, the Steering Committee for the Los Angeles School Heads, the Studio City Neighborhood Council, and has chaired the last two search committees for bishops of Los Angeles. He currently serves as the Chair of the Commission on Schools of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and is on the Advisory Board of the Collaborative for Spirituality in Education. He and his wife Katie have enjoyed raising their two sons as 13-year Campbell Hall students. Rev. Bull enjoys tennis, hiking, and playing bridge in his spare time.
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Campbell Hall is an independent, Episcopal, K-12 all gender day school. We are a community of inquiry committed to academic excellence and to the nurturing of decent, loving, and responsible human beings.
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