by Lucy Hanouille
My father died when I was twenty years old. Up until his death, I had never told anyone of his illness or the suffering that our family had endured for the past fifteen years. It was the family secret — we learned well not to discuss it.
Death sometimes has a way of revealing secrets. I was encouraged to take the news of my loss to the Assistant Dean of my art school, Doris Kinsella.
Doris was, in my opinion, one of the world’s best listeners. I found myself pouring my heart out to her. She listened, gave advice and encouraged me to stay in school and in counseling.
As I left her office, she pointed down the hall at another girl I knew and liked and said, “See that girl? She lost her father this weekend. Heart attack. Very sudden, very unexpected.”
That was all she said. But from that moment, I looked for that other girl. If she was working in the studio, I worked. If she was going to classes, I went. I couldn’t imagine how it felt to lose someone so quickly; I admired her courage. Having known my father was dying… if she could keep going, I could, too.
At the school year’s end, the other student, “Alice” and I were talking. We shared our deep respect for Doris and the comfort she had brought to our lives in this difficult year.
Alice then told me her story. She also had been encouraged to see Doris when her father died. She also found a deep, thoughtful, compassionate listener in Doris. Doris had suggested grief counseling and encouraged her to stay in school.
When they walked out of her office together, Doris pointed towards me and said, “See that girl? Her father just died after 15 long years of illness. No one really knows what made him ill.”
After that, Alice looked for me every day. If I was working in the studio, she worked in the studio. If she saw me going to classes, she went to classes. Alice said she couldn’t imagine how it must have felt to live with the inevitability of death for so long. We both agreed that it didn’t matter how the loss occurred — it still hurt deeply.
In that way, without even speaking, we kept each other in school. We kept each other going. With one simple sentence, Doris kept us both in school.
We lost Doris to cancer almost 20 years ago, but her kindness and her love for me as a student and person have stayed with me to this day. I realize now that the lesson she taught me, by her simple statements, has been a guiding light keeping me going through the hard times in my life. No matter how alone depression or PTSD made me feel, I knew I was not alone after all.
Her words made all the difference in my life.