Wednesday, May 5, 2021

No One Teaches You

(still editing this. But publishing it anyway.)

Last week, we lost a student in my college. I knew the person only a little bit, but the staff, our students, our community has all been devastated by this incalculable, unimaginable loss, which comes during a time of so much other loss, on top of the stress of the end of the term, not to mention a year in which systemic racism has been a constant conversation and many people are re-living traumas on a regular basis. It has just all been so much.

I debated whether to tell the small part of the student's story that I know, the window into what happened over the span of just a few days, and the awful feeling in my stomach when I knew in my gut what I didn't want to know in my head, but decided that it is not my story to tell. What is my story to tell, though, is that this past week has made me so grateful for the ALI community that I met through his blog.

There are no words that can offer any comfort to a parent who has lost their only child. This isn't how it's supposed to go; you're supposed to have children (multiple children), and live a long happy life to see them grow up and have their children. That's the story we are told.

Of course, we know that this story has many different and difficult endings, or at least that it unfolds in many different and difficult and sometimes tragic and devastating ways.

As a nation, as a culture, we are not very good at dealing with death. We don't like to talk about it because it reminds us that we're not immortal, hat the narrative is flawed, and we're are an optimistic country, so mortality is not something we like spending time considering. If you want proof, just look at how we dealt with the pandemic. If we were really understood and accepted mortality, maybe we would have taken more precautions collectively, looked out for each other.

On top of that, we're also not very good about talking about mental illness. While it's better than it was when I was a teenager, there are still stigmas around anxiety and depression that make it difficult for people to seek and get the treatment they need. 

So when mortality and mental illness collide, you can imagine how this goes. We come up pretty short. We want to make it go away. We don't even like to say, publicly, that this death was a suicide, because it feels like there is some shame in this act. We question ourselves, wonder what else we could have done, try to find someone or something to blame. All of this makes talking about it very hard.

Over the years, the ALI community gave me vocabulary and a way to sit with people who are grieving, people whose lives are not following the traditional script. We talk about death and loss in very public ways, we mourn together, we comfort each other, speaking the names of children we have lost. I learned the word "abide" here, even though we are rarely together in person to experience the solace of three dimensional companionship. Oddly enough, I learned here, in a space where we share words, that it's OK to not have any. I learned to sit in silence and presence.

I never want to have to have the kinds of conversations I've had last week. I don't think I've done it all right, or done enough, because those are impossible things to achieve. But I do know that I have been able to sit (virtually) in a space where I have no words, to abide (at a distance) with people who have experienced an unimaginable loss, and try my very best to simply be present, to bear witness. And I owe that to you.

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  1. I'm so sorry for the loss you and your community are experiencing. And yes, I'm abiding with you, not trying to fix anyone's feelings. Such an important thing to do, to be a space maker and space holder in times of unimaginable grief. I, too, learned that from our ALI community.

    I'm sure your presence allowed for people around you to feel their feels, which, as we know, is a necessary step in grieving.


  2. First I want to say I’m so sorry for the loss in your school community. Your paragraph about it being another loss on top of a year full of them really, really hit home.

    Compassion Fatigue is a word my friend who is a social worker used. So true.

    And yes…2 years ago an 8th grader in my daughter’s class killed himself, and it was such a tough, terrible conversation to have…and then to have worry and guilt I’m doing enough to not have any of my kids get to a place where impulsivity meets despair (as the minister said at this boys memorial service.) I have always been of the mind that I wanted to be able to have any conversation with my kids, and not have things be hidden or secret that we can’t talk about. It serves no one.
    Holding your community in my heart and prayers, and especially the parents of this student.❤️❤️❤️

    1. Compassion fatigue. Yes. I yelled at my family, some time after publishing this, that I was tired of holding everyone's pain. Maybe there really is a limit to what we can hold before overflowing ... while I want to believe that we can hold it all, we all need to release it, too. :(

      Thank you for your prayers. I'm so sorry for your daughter's classmate's family, too ... it's just so, so terrible. :( <3

  3. Oh, I am so sorry you & your community (and those poor parents!) are dealing with this. :( I completely agree with you, though, that being part of the ALI blogging community has helped me deal with my own grief and losses, and then abide with the grief of others, in a much better way than I could before. I owe that to you too. <3

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