Let difficulty transform you. And it will.
In my experience, we just need help
In learning how not to run away.
– Pema Chodron
I teach English at a local community college. Since our courses are now being delivered online, instructors needed to check on their students who have not logged into our courses to offer assistance. I did not anticipate what I encountered on the other end of the phone. These students helped to broaden my perspective and made me realize how much this pandemic has affected our community in different ways. Surprisingly, their stories dovetail with an article I read yesterday about the pandemic spurring feelings related to grief.
In the article, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief”, Scott Berinato explained that what we are actually feeling is loss similar to grief. The stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance. Here are some observations of grief based on these conversations with my students:
Anger – anticipatory grief
“Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis….there is a storm coming” (Berinato).
I called student #1. She is an A student, but has not signed on to our class in a few weeks. When she answered the phone, chaos erupted in the background. A demanding voice shouted, “Who is on the phone? Hang up! Hang up!”. My student apologized and said she was closing her door. She explained that her mother is very fearful that this pandemic could cause her family to be deported. They are living in a state of utter fear that ICE agents will be at their door. She wondered if her mother would take any of them to the hospital if one of them became sick. The ragged fear in my student’s voice was palpable. All I wanted to do was give her peace, but I was just another person demanding something of her at the moment. I talked with her a while and just listened. It was cathartic and she thanked me for my time. That’s the least I could give her.
I thought about this student having to manage a very tough situation in her home. Stress can get magnified during times like these. And, if you are a parent, all you are concerned with is the health and welfare of your children. I felt for this mom in the background – scared and unsure – with the added stress of wondering whether or not she will be forced out of her home.
I spoke with a single mom whose voice spoke volumes as soon as she answered the phone. Defeated is the best description I can offer. She sounded exhausted and explained she has 3 small children and she’s all alone in the house with them. She apologized and said she was sorry for not being in class. I assured her I would work with her, explained there are resources to help her and then asked her how she was feeling. We commisserated, but I am not so arrogant to think we are dealing with the same situation. I have older children and a husband who is a partner in this fight with me. This woman is all alone. We talked, laughed and she cried a bit. I believe I was one of the first adults she had spoken to in a while. I offered to talk with her again this week. We can lean on each other during this time, I told her. I just hope leaning is enough for this mom.
One of my younger students answered the phone, “What?!”. After identifying myself, she said “OK”. I told her I was there for her if she needs anything and she said, “I’ll log in today, if I get the chance.” She responded to me as though I was her nagging mother. I get it. I kind of am in this scenario. I assured her that was fine. Quite frankly, at the time I wanted to get off of the phone with her as much as she wanted to dispatch me. However, looking back on the conversation, I need to check myself and my knee-jerk reactions. I have to realize that we all deal with grief and stress in our own ways. I hope this student will allow me to help her complete our course. I will keep an eye on her just as I am doing with my other students.
So, what do we do for help? Berinato offers advice through an interview with an authority on grief, David Kessler.
Kessler says, “There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. So many have told me in the past week, “I’m telling my coworkers I’m having a hard time,” or “I cried last night”. When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion…” (Berinato).
“Your work is to feel your sadness, fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then, we’re not victims” (Berinato).
Kessler goes on to explain feeling your feelings in an orderly way:
“Sometimes we try not to feel what we’re feeling because we have this image of a “gang of feelings”. If I feel sad and let it in, it will never go away… The truth is a feeling moves through us. We feel it and it goes and then we go on to the next feeling. There’s no gang out to get us….Let yourself feel the grief and keep going” (Berinato).
It is important we understand that people are living this altered state of self-distancing in very different ways. Reach out with love and compassion. Help as much as you can. We really have no idea what others are facing at this moment. I was lucky enough to be provided with a glimpse.
Special thanks to Jeannette Coggins for this article:
Berinato, Scott. “‘That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.’” Harvard Business Review, Mar. 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-you’re-feeling-is-grief.