“There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me.”
--C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.
A brisk wind topped by a blue, cloudless sky tosses dry brown leaves outside my window, challenging them to tumble like the leaf E. E. Cummings famously depicted in “l(a.” That is a poem I love and that not only speaks of separation; it embodies it.
Yellow, purple, red, and orange foliage everywhere makes me ask as you might: Why are things so beautiful as they die?
My own beautiful mother died on September 14.
In the classes I am teaching, there have been reports of deaths of loved ones, too – from natural causes, from the horror of suicide, in combat. These losses always grip me, and this fall they are synchronous with my own.
Of course trees are not dying in fall but just shedding, and we know spring will cycle back.
By contrast, death might be a natural and inevitable process, but it’s not easy to ponder and accept.
Kind people from throughout all sectors of the university have offered condolences in the past few weeks, leading me to write a column to thank, to help, to hope.
With or without religious belief, it is safe to say that people are interconnected – on campus, everywhere. Some may prefer to grieve in isolation, but no two styles of grieving are the same, the brilliant work of Kübler-Ross notwithstanding. In the back of my car, to be pulled out in snatches between classes, is indeed one of her classics.
I. If you are a comforter: Your words matter. Your attentive silence matters. You matter.
Loss brings loneliness. Most of us without fixed work groups -- I am an adjunct faculty member -- lack the steady presence of colleagues on the job. Whether someone in your midst is an adjunct or a regular, share words in person, by e-mail, in a card. A student of several semesters back stopped me as he traveled east and I west in a campus library to ask: “Ms. Stewart, how are you doing -- really?” There in the library stacks, I told him how much I appreciated his phrasing. We spoke a little; I listened to him; he listened to me. Helpful.
II. If your colleague has a memory glitch somewhere along the line, forgive.
This same student wanted to be reminded of my phone number so he could contact me on a creative project we may collaborate on in the future. I gave it to him -- or so I thought. Inadvertently, I had shared my son’s number. Momentary distraction will not be a trait of everyone who is bereaved, but it might be. It is not my style. Other glitch: sent to business editor brief note intended for humor editor. Oh well.
III. If a student has an absence that is not reported, be careful before you pounce.
This story is drawn from my husband’s book of life before we met. When he was a student, he missed several classes in a row in an era before e-mail and when even to phone a professor was almost impolite. My husband returned to class, and the teacher “laid into him,” berating him for his absences. Stunned, my husband simply replied: “My father died,” and the professor’s profuse apologies were accepted with his acknowledgment that he had also lost his own father.
The whole drama – and that jolt -- might have been avoided with a gentle inquiry first.
IV. If a student or a colleague is driven to commemorate a deceased relative or friend, honor that.
This past summer I had a student motivated to revise and revise and revise. And it was meaningful work — not just cosmetic. I asked him where his work ethic originated, and he mentioned a teacher in a previous writing class. And there was another ingredient, too -- a cherished grandmother had been lost not that long ago. Two of his extraordinary papers dealt with issues of the elderly. One summer years before, I took a course in a program that a friend of mine wanted to complete – but she died before she could. Consciously, I dedicated my efforts to her.
V. If a bereaved person calls to share funeral information, resist the urge to say, "Shoot me an e-mail."
I asked my husband to contact some people; others, I called. Increasingly dependent on technology, we still do need the spoken word. Over the summer, in a whimsical mood, I wrote a humorous essay about how we will all someday be born, date, get married, give birth, raise kids, get divorced, die, and be memorialized strictly online. What makes me pause now in a more serious mood is that the future may be chillingly like this — if we let it.
VI. Tragic deaths of the young should not be swept under the rug.
As the anniversary of Tyler Clementi’s tragic death passes, I remember a phone call that changed me forever, hearing of a close childhood friend who ended her own life at 21.
I do understand the fear of suicide contagion, but I also remember the bewildering and alone feeling of losing a friend by suicide not long after I had lost my dad to a heart attack.
Each loss gave rise to the inevitable, unutterable, unanswerable question: Why? at a time in my life I felt so mature but – looking back – I had so much maturing ahead.
Campuses do their best and might do better to reach out to the bereaved, even as counseling centers groan under the weight of student needs. Each fall, more than a few freshmen in my classes are facing their first major and personal loss, often a grandparent, just as they are transitioning to college. My son is in this situation right now. The loss may be stifled as the development challenge of adapting to college is so strong.
And sometimes words are not enough. When I lost a former student to an accident, the thick fog in my mind parted only through art.
For anyone grieving and seeking answers here, also fold in: clergy, counselors, friends.
VII. Each loss echoes others’ losses.
My mother’s graveside service was attended by a small circle of friends and family; my mother had outlived her contemporaries on two continents. But among the colleagues attending were a new friend, an old friend, and someone whose wife had substituted for me that very week. It was comforting.
VIII. Don’t put off that final visit.
I have dealt for one third of my life with the elderly off-campus, leading community writing groups. I have taught women and men who seemed ageless -- given their vitality, creativity and zest for life. The reality, of course, is that many in the group have died. Once vibrant woman, Paula, lost a battle with cancer; among her bountiful questions was: “Maria, when are you going to write about us?” In her final weeks, I thought that she – we – had more time. With what I knew of loss, I should have hustled over to see her right away. Inertia, fear of the end, fear of my own inadequacy deterred me.
Please learn from this. If a colleague or friend or student is dying and you are close, go for the last visit. Avoid delay; expected timetables may be wrong. You won’t regret some other task deferred to take that visit.
IX. There is no precise prescription for dealing with loss.
Draw inspiration from where it may come. For me, to ask people who are willing to share how they endured bereavement is helpful – in part because I like people’s stories, in part because it gets the lens off me. The printed word can help; IHE columnist Terri Givens wrote movingly about grieving; if you missed that column, consider clicking “Lessons from Loss.”
X. Tables can turn in an instant.
A visible wound, even if not particularly serious, garners immediate empathy and inquiry. I recently was wondering about foot injuries as a student approached me on crutches. The questions may seem simple in such cases: “Do you mind if I ask how it happened?” and then maybe: “What does the doctor say?” That seems simpler than words to the bereaved – at least sometimes.
And then fate, as if to test my hypothesis, had me turn my foot on a loose pavement stone in the yard. I wasn’t even being clumsy; the ground was soaked by rain. Now, suddenly, I was physically down, literally, on the ground, with a puzzled dog looking at me. Now I have a visible wound – in the fifth metatarsal -- though one far less enduring than bereavement. People wherever I go just may ask, “How are you doing?” or even if they don’t, they may be a little more polite, holding elevators and maybe thinking, “Wonder how I would cope with that?”
The broken metatarsals of our heart have no splint that I know of. The balm of time, alignment with core values, the compression of friends or colleagues who ask the compassionate questions, even the intermittent chill of winter … plus, maybe, kindness.