Lessons From Loss

The deaths of her mother and a close colleague leave Terri E. Givens reflecting on mourning and on life choices.

July 9, 2010

In the last few months I have lost my mother, and a former colleague/friend. No loss is ever easy, and even though my mother’s recent passing was expected, it is hard to come to terms with the fact that, having lost my father nine years ago, I have become part of the elder generation in my rather large family (I’m the youngest of seven). My friend was only 46, just a year older than me. Although I feel the loss of my mother in a much deeper way, the loss of my friend has also caused me to take stock of my life in a way that losing my mother hasn’t. His death was so unexpected that I didn’t have time to see him while he was in the hospital. In the case of my mother, it helped that I was on leave this year. I could drop everything at a moment’s notice and hop on a plane when needed, allowing me to be there before, during and after her passage.

Taking stock of the last year, I realize that despite having left administration, my life has not slowed down much. I still travel a great deal, particularly since my research is in Europe. In fact, I just hit the million mile mark with American Airlines – something I consider a dubious distinction. Unfortunately, many of those miles came during the eight times I traveled from Austin to Seattle to visit my mother and family in the last nine months. Despite taking some time during my mother’s last few weeks to see her and have some down time, I’ve found yet again that life simply doesn’t stop. I’m still excited about the work that I’m doing and want to keep pursuing it. I remember after my father’s sudden death from a heart attack I was slowed down for at least a couple of months. My mother’s passing came with more warning, and in many ways I found that going forward with work and travel was therapeutic.

I have come to realize that I need to allow myself the flexibility to grieve in my own way – to weep when the tears come, or to smile when I remember my former colleague’s smile and amazingly positive approach to life. As always, it’s about balance – having the flexibility to take things in stride…and enjoy the small moments, like my 6-year-old winning a trophy at chess club, or taking my 9-year-old to see the new Shrek movie at the IMAX theatre. It's part of a larger process that allows us as humans to work through the ebbs and flows that are the rhythms of life.

People are often surprised when I tell them that I continued running during the last few months. Running is my main form of stress relief, and it really mattered when I could get away for an hour or so as we sat in vigil by my mother’s bedside. I think we all tend to forget that we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to continue to take care of ourselves regardless of the circumstances. There will be times when that doesn’t work, but whenever possible it is the key to the well-being of both mind and body. I’ve also been fortunate to have friends to rely on, and a large family to help carry many of the burdens.

One of the things I love about being a professor is the flexibility it provides. Of course, it helps to have a spouse who can manage the home and kids while I am away. Luckily the family is joining me during my research in Europe this summer, something we can manage because my husband’s boss is willing to allow him the flexibility to telecommute from Europe. But going forward, I plan to spend more time with my children and taking care of projects at home. I know that priorities will change over time, and unexpected opportunities and challenges are part of life. Finding the balance between family and career is a never ending challenge.

As I have faced loss during the last few months, I have found refuge in promoting both my physical and spiritual well-being. When I return from Europe I expect to take some time to focus on my spiritual side, perhaps through a retreat of some kind. I realize that I am still processing the major changes that have occurred in my life over the last year, both good and bad. However, the most important thing I keep reminding myself is that when people ask how I’m doing, sometimes it’s ok to say “life sucks” although I usually say something more like “I’m hanging in there.”

As I jump back into the full swing of academic life this fall, teaching large lecture courses and dealing with the new rules on syllabuses and textbooks, it will be interesting to see how I work back into that regular schedule. I don’t know that I’ve every truly been on a regular faculty schedule, and I’m not sure how it will turn out this year. My second son was born during my first year at UT, I’ve been in administration for 5 years and on leave during the last year. As I ponder the lessons of the last year, I wait in anticipation of the life that will unfold during the upcoming year.


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