Fear, Hard Stuff, Grief – There’s a Trend Here: Speaking about Things Taboo

23 Oct

I.

When we think about grief, generally speaking, we think about death.  But I think that’s a very limited and tunnel vision view of grief.  Grief is the end result of any loss, and loss is so broad.”

Howard Winokeur in Shallcross.

We are talking about loss as the real or perceived deprivation of something one considers meaningful.  If it’s meaningful for me, and I lost it, then it’s loss, whether you think it is or not.  The concept of disenfranchised grief emphasizes that every society has ‘grieving rules’ that determine a socially conferred ‘right to grieve.’

Kenneth Doka in Shallcross

Yup, a day ago it was Monday morning and I was reviewing resources together with a rough draft of this week’s blog post.  That post –  about inverted, flipped, changed, blended, screencast teaching and learning, or whatever we might call deliberative teaching that shifts students working with course concepts and materials into the classroom – will make its way to the November line up. There’s always a time and there’s always a place here on the TILT blog to directly address teaching and learning.

Restricted Access

There is almost never a place in academe to think, talk or write about grief.

Certainly there are empirical studies we create for academic publication (some of which are cited below), and personal essays we write for personal audiences (one of which, coincidentally, I posted recently on my personal teaching blog).  And certainly academics who’ve learned to be resilient writers often use those “writing to task” activities to get us through difficult moments by carrying on with the writing.

Yet, as I was sat at my workspace on Monday, every part of my brain and body was examining grief.  I’ve never known grief to enter anyone’s life in timely ways nor to bring impacts that situate themselves in our lives in manageable or rule-governed ways.  Yet, timelines and management and rule-following are expected of us.

Enough of that.

Looking back just two weeks, I see these griefs in a glance:  A work colleague’s parent dies.  A friend marks the one-year passing of her older sister.  A postdoc watches a parent recover from unexpected big-deal surgery.  A grad student faces losing one of her many adjunct teaching posts.  One undergrad is experiencing the geographic distance from home as a wrenching loss of support systems, and another despairs that his political science major has taught him to see all the flaws in the world while poo-pooing real learning of skills necessary for social justice work and organizational change.

Cycles, Transitions, Seasons

The last several of these events can be categorized as non-death grief.  That list also includes:

  • return from / entry into military service,
  • exile from home country / refugee status,
  • miscarriage,
  • job loss,
  • death of a pet,
  • death of an admired public person or mentor,
  • homelessness,
  • acquired disability or chronic illness,
  • incarceration,
  • moving away from / sale of “home,”
  • divorce and marriage,
  • parental or sibling illness,
  • floods and other destructive weather events,
  • geographic distance from support systems, and
  • failing to finish a course, to find a “fit” or gain a place in a desired academic major.

In these circumstances, grief can be described as a “conflicting feeling caused by a change or an end in a familiar pattern or behavior” (Russell Friedman in Shallcross); such griefs are also often called disenfranchised griefs – non-death losses, deaths of non-primary people – those who, by the rules of dominant cultural construction, aren’t considered “close enough” family or friends to merit time or attention away from work.

II.

Non-death loss events are not typically recognized and acknowledged by others as grief producing despite intense physical, psychological and emotional consequences similar to those experienced with death loss events. This lack of recognition may impede grief resolution in that the grieving individual may not feel entitled to and subsequently, choose not to pursue informal support or formal counseling for their distress.

Debra Ann Cohen

It’s just after mid-semester here and the campus newspaper reminds us not only that there are waitlists at the student mental health center, even as more staff have been and will be hired.  Such requests on my home campus are at an all-time high.  According to a Chronicle of Higher Education report at the start of this month, only 10.6% of students will seek professional counseling for any reason.  Even fewer discuss stress, non-death grief or death-related grief with peers or teachers.  And yet, the Chroniclealso reports, nearly 1/3 of college students have lost close friend or relative in the last year; when it’s a two-year time frame, that number increases to nearly 50 percent.  Parents, grandparents, cousins, friends and kin of all sorts leave the lives of college students who say little to us – or to their peers – about the facts or feelings of these losses.

Everything in Change

And, of course, the effects of non-death and death-related griefs cross the doorways – physical and virtual – of our classrooms and offices daily: edges of anger, increased activity, withdrawal from interactions, denial of responsibility; loss of control that can includes seeking control by any means.  As my undergraduate university – Minnesota State University, Mankato – reports, grief takes on emotional, social, cognitive and physical / behavioral dimensions – many of which I recognize as taking up space in classes I’ve taught across three decades:

Emotional: sadness, anxiety, anger, irritability, moodiness, guilt feelings, fear, helplessness, relief, emotional numbness, lack of ability to feel pleasure, diminished self-esteem

Social: difficulty in relationships, fear of groups or crowds, loss of interest in social activities, withdrawal from relationships

Cognitive: shock, forgetfulness, worry, confusion, preoccupation with the loss of the loved one, concentration problems, memory difficulties, loss of creativity, sexual disinterest, vivid dreams

Physical and Behavioral: tearfulness, lack of motivation, accident proneness, tightness in the chest and throat, fatigue, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, difficulty taking deep breaths, sleep disturbances, restlessness, loss of appetite, increase in appetite, nausea, cramps, diarrhea, indigestion, inability to sleep, sleeping too much, muscle tightness, sexual difficulty, headaches, diminished productivity

What’s a teacher to do?  A colleague or supervisor to do?

III.

All loss is experienced at 100 percent.  There are no exceptions.  What changes from loss to loss is the strength of the feeling.

Russell Friedman in Shallcross

I started re-writing today’s post after I learned my young cousin – the nearly 40-year-old child of my nearly 75-year-old cousin just recovered from surgery – had died in police custody on the weekend.  Several layers of grief: for the person losing a child, for the death of my loved young cousin, for the battles with our particular family mental health realities showing up across the generations, and for the many students in my classrooms who, like my young cousin, want and struggle to learn even as they face a host of circumstances that cause them grief.

Clouds on the river.

I write this having started working at the Center for Teaching and Learning now a dozen years ago, but then having started just two days after my father’s funeral.  It’s what he asked me to do – begin my new work life as soon as I could.  And my new supervisor made the transition to work possible by saying three things:

  1. I’m sorry for your loss.
  2. Starting a new post will be difficult in the best circumstances, so let the timing of the first day be your choice and let it not be perfect.
  3. With one of your new colleagues having recently experienced the death of a parent, I know you will have difficult days and you won’t want to speak with me about those moments.  [Name of colleague] has offered to be a person you can talk to along the way.

My then new supervisor defied the US workplace norms for addressing death-related grief – the allotment of three days leave, then leave it at home or take a leave of absence –  by acknowledging the obvious through her condolences, by giving me some say in the allotment of time to re-enter work, and by acknowledging social nature of workplaces and placing me into a network where I could be present even in the thick of grief.  She made grief ordinary.  She created a space where we all respected how the work of the unit could get done while the life of the unit’s staff carried on.

And we can do that for our students, whatever the griefs they face.  We can say aloud that mid-semester is a stressful time.  Just doing that brings the common experience into the room and makes it the new normal: testing time is stressful, encountering new ideas shakes worlds, facing the wicked complexity of a world problem one is studying provokes despair in measures often greater than hope, and our lives beyond school do come into the rooms with us.

We can bring brochures and posters into our classrooms – leaving them in common places to pick up alongside the day’s handouts, or posting them in electronic view alongside the discussion thread on Moodle that day.  We can remind students that tests are about sharing all that they’ve come to learn during the term and not a measure of their “native” intelligence – that these same tests maybe even calibrate our own sense of how we’re teaching is something we can note.  We can remind ourselves and our students that we are grading course work and that we are NOT “grading students.”

We can speak about students who’ve changed majors on discovering new interests, in realizing a discipline – our discipline – wasn’t the right fit.  And we can speak about the students who created a new niche within our discipline – after flunking out elsewhere – by pursuing innovative thinking.  We can welcome those students who will pass through our disciplines for just one course by seeding connections rather than weeding out the non-majors.

We can trust our students to be honest in reporting death or other losses and we can make room for ways their life circumstances and cultures shape who is important and circumstances of rituals for life’s many rich passages.  We might do that in our own individual ways as many of my professors did in making room, throughout my undergraduate and phd school years, for what needed being done when 30-some of my kinship network died – attending a funeral, being present months later on a significant date, calling for a happy hour right there on campus when teaching or studenting anchored me to school.

Or in our departments and colleges and universities we might establish a “Grief Absence Policy for Students” like this one reported in the Chronicle:

Rather than negotiate with multiple professors over due dates and class absences, students now need only contact the office of the dean of students. The policy specifies the number of excused absences a student may receive depending on the relation of the person who has died, and whether the student is traveling for the funeral. Under the policy, instructors must provide the opportunity to earn credit equivalent to what the student missed during the absence.

Students must provide documentation of a death or funeral service. During the 2011-12 term, 480 students (out of almost 40,000) used the policy.

Granted, I would want us to remove anything that quantified the number of days a student could be away based on an institution’s determination a “relative hierarchy” and I would want departments to be places – like the Center for Teaching and Learning here – where those non-death related griefs can be addressed in such leave policies.  Not the formal leave policies that would have us not work at all in order to tend to life, but the grief-meets-life leave policies that allow us to move forward with both paid and personal work.

We can – as my UIowa teaching mentors did with me – suggest to a graduate student caught between a loved one’s death and a writing deadline to  write about and to the person now gone; for me, in writing to and of my grandmother to sort out my ideas in a format and voice she’d want to read got my prospectus written during the week it was due, also the week of her funeral and my birthday.  In those moments we teach young writers how to be resilient in facing the task, the feeling, the moment at once.

And we can – in all those right times – let our students in on our own griefs.  I learned this the hard way.  The message that my “healthy when I talked to her two days ago” mother died arrived at the Center and was conveyed to me in the middle of a class I was teaching.  A week later I returned – my mother loved that I was a teacher, which made returning to all of my classes the right thing, but especially to that class where I had learned of her death.  I had no idea what I was going to say.  And then one of my students in this Teaching in Higher Education course asked if this would be one of those times where they should NOT take me up on the “you can ask me anything” invitation.  “No,” I said, “This would be a perfect time to ask my anything.  We’ll learn how to do this together.”

Whether it’s molecular chemistry, or educational psychology, or political theory, or infomatics, or nursing, or mechanical engineering – or navigating those life changing losses that matter to us individually and culturally – isn’t learning and higher education really about learning how to do this together?

Along Mississippi River – North Mpls

IV. Resources

Cohen, Debra Anne. “An empirical study of college students’ grief responses: Death vs. non-death losses.”  Dissertation, Syracuse University.  1996.

Eaton, Marie.  “Environmental Trauma and Grief.”  Curriculum for the Bioregion (website).  5 Oct 2012.

Shallcross, Lynne.  “Rewriting the ’rules’ of grief.”  Counseling Today.  September 2009.

Peterkin, Caitlin.  “Campuses Offer Policies and Support Groups for Students Facing Loss.”  Chronicle of Higher Education.  1 Oct 2012.

Rothenberger, Sara B.  “Campus Commons: Lessons through Grief – What Textbooks Can’t Teach.”  About Campus.  17 Sept 2004.

UIowa Center for Teaching.  “Facilitating Classroom Discussions after a Disaster.”  PDF.

 All photos by @IleneDawn.

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6 Responses to “Fear, Hard Stuff, Grief – There’s a Trend Here: Speaking about Things Taboo”

  1. Cristina Costa 23 October 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    wow – this is an amazing post and made me think about my own approach and how bad I am at bridging that communication in such situations as I have difficulty in approach such topics simply because they don’t come easy to me… I know they don’t come easy to anyone!

    Thank you or this. This has got me thinking about my own practice.

  2. Ailsa Haxell (@ai1sa) 23 October 2012 at 4:46 pm #

    I value this post. During my own phd I have had both parents die, and yet judgements are made about why did my part time doctorate take me so long and it seems i am forever having to say life (and death) gets in the way. Thankyou for posting on such an important topic.
    Learning is not, or should not be, a race.

  3. zoekav 24 October 2012 at 2:42 am #

    This is a very good post. Most students suffer loss through death of close ones and even grieve over a number of issues but usually suffer silently. I have recently lost my Granddad whom i had not seen for 2 years. I have carried on with lectures as normal as if nothing happened but really hurting inside. Like Cristina pointed out that how do we communicate,approach someone or talk about the grief and possibly help with mental stress? Breaking the Taboo…
    Thanks.

  4. Ilene Dawn Alexander (@IleneDawn) 24 October 2012 at 3:05 pm #

    Thanks Cristina, Ailsa and Zororo for sharing comments. As you all imply, it is both difficult and necessary to simply say some version of “I’m sorry for your loss” and then just as simply to continue turning up another person’s live as you would have before a landmark loss happened. As a teacher, I remind myself that when I find expressing empathy or sympathy to a student to be difficult that I’ve probably already said something far more difficult to that same student – like when I had critiqued a paper draft or redirected a question or spoke in haste to an important process question. Both those sorts of comments and “I’m sorry” are personally felt by the student hearing the words. And I’m thinking that the “I’m sorry” is both easier and more important for them to hear.

    Again, thanks for adding in your voices and experience.

  5. monashaw 25 October 2012 at 12:30 pm #

    How typical of your thoughtfulness, Ilene, to write this. In my 2-3 decades working within the academy, I found it a chronic taboo for people to be simply human with each other.

  6. linkalis 30 October 2012 at 1:09 am #

    This was a moment of beauty in my inbox this morning. One of the things I’ve been noticing in my “becoming adult” process is that I feel increasingly called upon to confront grief, and hold grief with people. Thanks for sharing a graceful discussion of what this can feel like.

    Also, I had a serendipitous encounter this weekend with a beautiful approach to celebrating life and respecting death: http://barebonespuppets.org/barebones-presents-the-19th-annual-halloween-extravaganza/#more-3770 Surprisingly fun, healing, and challenging!

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