Lessons for the Living

I started writing this post listening to Sensei shouting out instructions from the school hall, hearing kids talk over each other in the foyer while waiting for their class, the scrape of chairs, cars in the road, the groan of the geyser. And I can’t help but think how accurately that jumbled mess of noises reflects how I’ve been feeling for the past 48 hours.

I woke up feeling very annoyed on Sunday morning – because I just wasn’t feeling the two dresses I had tried on, and I was not overly excited about some of the people I would have to endure for the rest of the day. But that day was not about me. It was about the happiness of two very deserving people. So I got up, showered and dressed, and went downstairs (only for my irritation to escalate because I left myself a dirty kitchen to clean).
And then my phone pinged.

Signalling a message in our staff chat, informing us of the sudden death of one of our colleagues.

The rest of the day…well, I was like a programmed machine. I went to the ceremony, rushed to get to my colleague’s home. I said my goodbye to her, offered a duah for her, and offered my condolences to her family. Attended the wedding reception. Did what I needed to do for the people who needed my help.

At the end of the day, I said goodbye to my family. It took me 20 minutes to drive home and I cried the whole way.

I had a good relationship with my late colleague, but we were not close. I did not know what went on in her home and with her family. Even though she looked healthy, and very rarely took off sick, I knew she had a hospital appointment once a month, but not what it was for. I never heard her complain. I never saw her unhappy. I never knew of her struggles, even though I knew that she had them.

What I do know is that she was completely in love with her husband. I knew she had one son for whom she lived her whole life. I knew that she always greeted with a smile. I knew that she loved to sing or make thikr, and did so often and loudly through the corridors of our school. I knew that she treated all of her learners as though they were her own children.

I may not have known her as well as I perhaps should have, especially after having worked together for almost 10 years. But I do know that her death hit me harder than I expected. And when I found myself alone on Sunday evening, I sobbed like a baby. Yes, for the loss that I now share with my other colleagues..but more so for the overwhelming sadness I saw in her son’s face, and for the fact that he has to endure the remaining few months of his high school career carrying that sadness.

A very good friend went with me to pay our respects. We chatted the evening and during our conversation she somehow managed to put into words what I couldn’t, “You seemed distant really…It was as if it shook you so hard that you had a look at how your life is…And where there’s room to make it worthwhile while you’re still among the living”.

I’ve not been in the best emotional space lately. And even though I’ve been trying to work through it, there have been periods where I’ve felt very alone and neglected, and unable to see a way out of that space. But while I’ve been so focused on the few things I feel is missing from my life, I’ve ignored the innumerable things I do have. My colleague’s death forced me to have a hard look at my life, and how ungrateful I’ve been for the past few months. It made me look at how I conduct relationships with the people around me, whether family or friends and, in this particular instance, colleagues.

We don’t always know the intimate details or struggles of the next person’s life. As much as my boss would love for us all to be friends, it’s just not possible, for a whole host of reasons. I can count on one hand the number of “friends” I have in my workplace (and I wouldn’t even use all of my fingers on that one hand) BUT just as I cannot choose my family, I cannot choose who I want to work with.

My colleagues are my work family, and we operate much like an actual family – there are some we get on great with, some we tolerate, some that drives us up the pole. But at the end of the day we are all there, working in different ways towards a common goal, each with our own unique and special place within the “home” that is our workplace.

There is so much room for improvement in how I treat my work family, and the unexpected death of one member has made me determined to treat the rest a lot more kinder than I have before, to acknowledge their contributions to my life, and to part at the end of each day on good terms.

Because my kindness may just be the only kindness they receive for the day. Because I don’t know the battles they fight in silence. Because there’s no guarantee that we’ll see each other tomorrow.


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