How to Survive When Grief is Your Teacher

Grief is the teacher you hope you’ll never get.

As you trace your finger down the column of names assigned to each class, you hope you won’t find your name on her list.

But then you see it – your name typed in crisp letters, and your heart sinks.

You get the call. You hear the diagnosis.

Or, like me, the doctor finally answers your question, “Is my daughter alive?” And through the haze of your own pain and confusion, he kindly holds your hand and answers, “No, I’m so sorry, she’s not.”


When I found myself on grief’s class list, there was no way I was going to show up in a classroom with strangers, so I homeschooled for a long time.

This worked because I was recovering from the accident, my body was broken, I couldn’t drive; nobody really expected me to show up in class.

Home was the only place I felt safe; so I cocooned myself, did physical therapy, and wrote really raw blog posts.

If you need to homeschool your way through grief for a little while, it’s okay, but eventually, you’ll need to join the class or you’ll drift from grief into something deeper and darker called depression.

Grief and depression may look similar, but they are actually two different classrooms requiring different kinds of support and help.

I often wonder if I’m dual-enrolled.

Online School

If you’re assigned to the grief class but not quite ready to show up, try online school for a bit. You get the perks of support from real people (including the ones who don’t like the teacher either), but you don’t have to get to know them very well.

They won’t show up at your house or expect you to come to their birthday parties. But if you wake in the night needing help with an assignment, chances are somebody else may be in the classroom too.

A little more time will pass and maybe the shock will wear off. Grief may be settling around you like a companion you don’t want, or possibly like a familiar friend because it reminds you of the person you love.

Join the Class

Now you’re ready now to join the classroom of grievers at school.

On your first day, choose a desk next to someone you think you may be able to tolerate. Don’t sit next to someone who looks particularly cheerful because he may tell you to be cheerful too, and personally, I don’t feel cheerful.

If you hear words like, “God will never give you more than you can handle, ” or “Count it all joy, ” accompanied by a wide smile, quickly move to the other side of the room.

Look at the faces of your classmates. Watch closely for a person who looks a little uncomfortable and kind, someone who looks like she could become a friend, then quickly grab the desk next to hers. A friend in the classroom of grief is better than anything else.

The books, assignments, even music, and PE, may all be helpful, but having a friend to eat lunch with each day or whisper to the teacher that your stomach hurts when you have your head down on your desk (because the day is too hard) is worth more than anything you’ll learn this year.

Embrace the Lessons

Grief will teach you lessons in faith, love, courage, perseverance, priorities. Grief will press you to examine your life like you never have before and if you don’t waste the opportunity, grief will change you for the better.

Embrace the lessons grief hands you (even if you still wish you’d never met your teacher) – don’t remain the person you were before.

At the end of the year, you may advance to another class, or like me, you may find you’re a slow learner and you’re staying for another year. It’s okay, because so are some of your classmates, and even the ones who annoyed you at the beginning of the year, have become familiar and a little more dear to you.

Their cheerfulness has given way to vulnerability and sometimes tears. You know their stories better now and they know yours. You have all come to learn that grief doesn’t expect false joy. True sorrow is rooted in love and an imagined future that will never be.

We miss the person who is gone – even if we truly believe we will see them again. For all our saying we know we will spend eternity together, when we wake up each morning, eternity still seems to be a long time away.

Believe the Beauty

If I were to give an end of the year speech to my classmates, I would share this thought:

I was praying yesterday, asking God to help me truly believe, not just with my mind but deep in my heart, that Kalkidan is loving every moment of heaven, that she is experiencing the joy we long for, when God impressed these words on my heart,

Believe the beauty

We are so loved. He is so good. He has prepared a beautiful place for us. We can trust his words, hope in his promises, and believe the beauty.

Much love to my fellow classmates in the classroom of grief. I wouldn’t have chosen our teacher, but I’m learning lessons I couldn’t have possibly learned from anyone else.

[Friends, please share favorite resources, online support groups, books, etc. in the comments. I will add them to the post as a resource list. Thank you for your help and support.]


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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Sarah
    August 28, 2017

    Thanks for your post. I would add from my experience, that sometimes, the people who become your support aren’t always who you expect. Additionally, it can be difficult, but letting other be kind, give and care for you is ok. If God has moved their heart to be kind, then we can celebrate/ be thankful for that characteristic and not feel embarrassed to be the recipient.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      September 5, 2017

      Totally agree, Sarah. Thank you.

  2. A friend
    August 28, 2017

    I found the Griefshare program to be helpful. It’s a video series offered to small groups to work through together. I didn’t know how to walk forward and Griefshare gave me a framework and lens through which to consider all that had happened and what to do now.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      September 5, 2017

      Thank you for sharing that resource.

  3. Emily
    August 28, 2017

    Love this.

    I have seen this series by Molly Piper, who lost her daughter as a full-term still birth in 2007, linked to multiple times over the years. It is a masterpost with links to several different posts she wrote on “How to Help Your Grieving Friend.” I often remember her words when wanting to support a friend in grief’s classroom or working with a grieving client, as well as have recognized parts of it during my own hard times.

  4. Carly
    August 29, 2017

    Wow, Lisa. Just WOW.

  5. Tricia Wilson
    August 31, 2017

    This is beautiful Lisa. Though I haven’t experienced the depth of your grief, this really spoke to me. Hugs.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      September 5, 2017

      Love that. Thank you, Tricia.

  6. Rachel
    September 14, 2017

    I love you. Thank you for some holy tears this morning.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      September 14, 2017

      Sending love right back to you.


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