We spoke to Dr Chenee Gilbert about her experience with death and what she is doing to educate, equip and empower our youth.
I lost my mother when I was in college, I was 19. My mum was only 44 and she died of cancer. She went through chemo and the cancer went away but it came back and came back with a vengeance because not only did she have … cancer, but it spread to her back. My dad and brother kept a lot away from me because I was away at school and didn’t want to stress me out. I saw her in her final stages and you know what that is like. If you’ve ever known or seen someone with cancer, when they are in their final stages they shrink and don’t look like themselves anymore. I can remember the day my dad called and said she was gone so come home. It was like at that moment the word momma left my vocabulary and I didn’t say momma anymore. All of these emotions ran rampant and although everyone knew she was sick, you can still never prepare. I didn’t talk to anyone, I became reclusive. I didn’t want to talk to anyone because at the time if you still had your mother living you wouldn’t know how I felt. I started a journal and wrote all of my emo‐ tions into it. I was mad at God, jealous of friends who still had their mum living, and I started thinking ahead. She would never see me graduate college or have kids and I just had all of these emotions that I wrote down. I finished college and began teaching. Now I always had the ‘behaviour problem’ class but one particular year, 2007 to be exact, I had 3 male students who kept pushing my buttons. I asked myself, who comes to school to act out every single day? I had to do these lesson plans and micromanage them, getting them sit down, behave and I was just fed up. I decided to talk to there family members, each individually and that’s when I learnt that one of the students was being raised by his grandmother. His dad had been incarcerated for life and his mother had died giving birth to him but he was never told. He was making up his own story and acting out in class. My other student had an uncle on drugs and sometimes he would be on the bus and see his uncle walking the streets. His family didn’t allow his uncle back in because of what he did so he missed his uncle. The third student, his dad was in a mental institute and it all fit, they were all grieving.
I started to reflect on how grief was discussed in my house, guess what, it was never discussed in my house. My mum was my biggest loss and it was something you’ve just got to deal with and move on but that’s no the case nowadays. I felt that if I had someone like me when I lost my mum, I would have managed situations better. I would of taken advantage of opportunities better and not just stay to myself. It was then that my 3 students made me go to my journal and turn it into a childrens book.
That’s the first book I published in 2008 and in that I said what I did, how I dealt with my mother’s death, I spoke to dad and shared memories together. I cried tears of joy because tears are a form of release, and when I told my students they understood how there actions were affecting themselves, their work, me, and their peers. I gave them each a copy of this book and they are smart students, it’s just no one had ever asked them how they felt. That’s when I said to God, if he was going to use me as a vessel to educate, then I’ll do it because we don’t need anyone else being depressed or having anger issues because that carries through to adulthood. I can teach these kids what grief is and what it looks like and equip them with coping strategies. I told them that the more they supress their feelings, the more it’s going to catapult it’s way into other parts of their lives. The reason why so many people struggle is because self-improvement takes work. There is no way around it, it takes work.
I always thought that grief was to do with death but when I started to research it that’s when I realised. Grief is a small word but it is a big reaction to a change or event that happens in your life. That could be anything like a big move or a divorce. The modern world doesn’t want to talk about it but why? When I have meeting with students and Their parents, I give the parents homework and you can’t do it by yourself. This is time for open discussion because people think kids don’t have feelings because they are young. That is not true. These kids are smart nowadays and they pick up on your actions. I always ask the parents how they react to frustration. Do you curse at people, do you slam doors, do you cry behind closed doors? Because they are going to mimic how you deal with things and if they see that you aren’t talking about it, they won’t talk about it. Let them know that you are human. We try to shield our kids a lot but they need to know you are human. Even if you are going through something they need to know that you will still look after them you are just having a moment.
“I started to reflect on how grief was discussed in my house, guess what, it was never discussed in my house.”
If you ask them how they think you dealt with it, this is a time for open dialog and so get these kids prepared to express themselves without judgement and let them release. Most times kids don’t need advice they just need to vent, they need to talk it out. Be that trusting person that they know they can say whatever to and what they are going through and know you won’t turn around and say get over it already. That’s how I came up with my book series. There aren’t many books in colour that discuss grief in our schools and they see a lot of grief. There’s a lot of drive by shooting, someones always dying, they see it everyday. So why can’t we educate ourselves to do better and be better and be better equipped to deal with situations as they arrive. So that’s what I do, I go out and educate the youths, I equip them with coping strategies so they can be a better self.
Do you do that as well as teach?
I do teach but on a collegic level. I still do parent nights, I do church nights and book nights but I’m not in an elementary setting.
What is your doctorate in?
My doctor degree is in organisational leaderships because at the time, I thought I might want to go into corporate training. Something that wouldn’t limit me to the school setting. Now looking back at it that’s what I should have done with all the education that is going around. I also did other courses because I wanted to make sure that I’m well informed and equip parents and students as well. I still have more classes to take but I enjoy it. I want to continue to research and know the ins and outs for myself and others. I want to be who I needed when I was 19.
If you could sum up the things that you would have said to your 19-year-old self, what would those things be:
- It’s okay to open yourself up without judgment – You don’t have to be strong for everybody, I immediately stepped into a mother role because I felt like I had to, nobody was telling me to. Did I need to do the laundry? Did I need to cook like mum? Nobody spoke about it I just did it. Boys feel like they have to be the man of the house, no they don’t they are just a kid. Telling a boy to stop crying and suck it up is silly, that’s a form of release and boys are allowed to cry.
- You aren’t alone – You aren’t the first person it’s happened to and you won’t be the last. I felt like I was alone because it hadn’t happened to any of my friends. You have to tell people what you want from them because they can say all they want but how do they know if they haven’t been in that situation? All people need to know is that you are there, you don’t have to say something. All of my family dealt with my mother’s death in a different way. I’m the only one in the family doing something like this. My brother can’t even read my books because he hasn’t fully dealt with it yet. D, on the other hand, and has read all of my books. We always reminisce on memories but we all deal with it in different ways. It took me 14 years to be at peace with it because I know she isn’t in pain anymore I just kept praying, is she okay? I got my peace of mind back by praying because God told me she was okay. It was then where I had to stop worrying. I haven’t in the last two years, but I would write letters to my mum because all of these emotions would come up. As I child I was smart mouthed and so I would get smart with my mum and so that guilt came up. If I hadn’t said this or if I hadn’t said that, so I would write these letters to help release this guilt and ask my mum if she’d forgave me. I would write these letters to mum and keep them in a special shoe box and I’d also write letters to God. I had to for‐ give myself and also ask God to forgive me as I blamed him a lot and I just had to accept that it was her time
You mentioned that you were angry with good, how did you mend that relationship with God and accept what had happened?
It takes time, it’s no overnight thing. If you have questions, write them down and pray. Things will start to reveal themselves. You have to dig deep within and be open. The more we ask, the more we hold onto things and we have to release it. In time things will start to be answered. It took 14 years for me, it takes work and you have to be willing, grief is a journey. We have to find what works for us as there is no path, no one telling you what to do. There is no bargaining because we are all on this planet temporarily so we have to do what we can to cope. We do however have to find the right kind of help as people can take advantage of vulnerable people. It was up to me to research grief and how to help myself through the process. When you go to support groups, it makes a world of difference. Although we go through different things, people sharing their experiences is a step. It’s a step to helping you.
You mentioned some things that you do weekly, what are somethings that you do that are easy and other people can do?
- I’ve started meditation because my mind runs rampant, I’m always thinking! I started meditation just to stop my mind and quiet my thoughts
- I still write in my journal
- I exercise, I walk and I reassess myself whilst I’m walking.
But meditation for me works because I’m always thinking and it helps me, even if it’s for 5 minutes. It’s really helped me to ‘degrief’. Meditation is great because sometimes, trying to do too much burns you out and you forget about time for yourself. You try to fill a void with being busy or spending money. It’s about prioritising and figuring out what you need and what you want. You may want to spend money but in the long term that won’t help you.
Do you find that a lot of the youths you deal with are involved in sport?
A lot are involved with sport and they told me it helps them as it keeps their mind off of it. When they are in a home they say it’s too quiet and they think too much. It’s only bad if they don’t talk about it and just play their sport, using it as an escape. Most of the kids I work with they don’t really talk when they are at home they talk when they come to the club as it gives them an outlet. One little girl said she doesn’t really talk about her Dad with her mum, her died of a heart attack when she was 8. Some kids only get to talk about it in certain environments. In my classes I always ask questions to engage conversation. I ask them who is in their health circle, choose someone who you can talk to without judgement. Some parents buy my book to show their child that they are struggling with things because a lot of adults haven’t dealt with their grief and they carry it and surpress and bring it to work. I have one more book coming out, it’s going to be a trilogy, and once that is complete I would like to turn my children’s books into animation and turn the desr grief series into 30 minute docu-series. Just so that these groups and these councellers have something to use as a visual and then have question answer time. I hope to do the dear grief series in the next year. I want to make grief easier to talk about and resources a lot more readily available to help people talk about their problems and overcome them.