Grieving Before Graduating

My second blog submission for the Huffington Post is now online:

Since the Internet is fickle and I want to remember these thoughts, I’m re-posting my work below.

My father died over winter break. Though he had been ill for many years, returning to my life as a student was more difficult than I ever imagined. I was forced to reprioritize my commitments to maintain focus on getting through each day — a difficult task for a chronic workaholic.

Grief is not an emotion I expected to experience in college. I struggled to discuss my feelings with classmates who had never considered their parents’ mortality. A friend of mine suggested that I join a bereavement group; oddly enough, his grandfather met a new love interest at a widow support meeting in New York. There was just one small problem — there were no public or student loss groups within 100 miles of my rural university. I knew that I could not be the only student in this situation (even though it felt like it), so I reached out to my college counseling office. They were happy to accommodate my request, and a handful of students showed up to the first meeting four months ago.

Each week I talk, cry and laugh with people that were strangers until the bereavement group brought us together. While a college therapist sometimes moderates our discussion, most of our time is spent sharing our experiences and offering advice on upcoming challenges. Together we started a list of guidance (below) for others experiencing and witnessing grief in college.

Things I wish someone had told me sooner:

    • It gets easier, but not in even increments. Emotions go up and down; sometimes the worst part is months after the actual death. And you won’t see these moments coming.
    • The smallest (and strangest) things can remind you of your loved one. Just this morning, my father’s favorite song, “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon, came on the radio and required a quick re-application of mascara before class.
    • You are allowed to keep thinking about the person you lost.”Moving on” doesn’t mean forgetting all of the memories you shared. It’s about managing your thoughts so your life can move forward.
  • A strange upside to experiencing something truly terrible is that you have a “Get-out-of-BS” card. If you are not interested in dealing with someone’s relationship drama, passive-aggressive Facebook posts or straight-out bad behavior, you are allowed to call him or her on it… and they won’t reprimand you for doing so. Don’t abuse this card, but allow yourself to reduce unnecessary drama in your life.

Advice for others that have lost a loved one in college:

    • Even if you’ve never been to a therapist or support group before, it’s a valuable experience — especially if you’re worried about overwhelming your friends.
    • Don’t beat yourself up if you had a bad hour/day/week. You can start fresh tomorrow.
    • Email some ideas of what you need (a shoulder to cry on, someone to make sure you finished your homework, etc.) to your closest friends. It will help them feel less awkward around you. Feel free to use these tips.
    • Don’t burn bridges. Dumping people or projects is tempting, but try holding off for a couple months in case you change your mind. Shortly after my dad died I thought about taking a semester off. I stuck with school and now my degree is still on track.
    • The pressure is huge to “get over it” and return to normal, but friends don’t realize that your version of normal doesn’t exist anymore. And what is normal anyway? It’s however you need to function until you feel good again.
  • Living away from home (sometimes for the first time) makes it hard to spend time and grieve with other family members. Reach out as much as you need to — even a brief text message that conveys your love can make a huge difference in their day.

Helpful ways to manage grief:

    • Share happy memories or silly stories that make you think of the person fondly — particularly when thinking about the actual death. Creating a digital photo album (and printing out a few favorites) offers a better perspective of your time together. Whether or not you share the album is up to you.
    • Start a new hobby — I learned how to cross-stich. Anything from knitting to jogging can help take your mind off of things.
    • Be good to yourself. Sleep plenty and eat well. On the same note: don’t beat yourself up for less-than-healthy choices — I became well-acquainted with two new friends, Ben & Jerry.
  • If your schedule seems too overwhelming, talk to your professors. Don’t feel bad about dropping unnecessary courses.

Advice for friends of people that have lost loved ones:

    • Send a card or something physical that we can keep and look back on (and seeing your support in words means a lot).
    • Try your hardest to attend the funeral/wake/spreading of the ashes/sitting shiva, even if you don’t have a role to play in the process. Your role is your presence.
    • Offer to help out behind-the-scenes. Your willingness to pick up Aunt Gertrude from the airport will not go unnoticed. Neither will your initiative to ask about his or her family and how they’re doing a few months later.
    • Don’t stop inviting us to hang out, even if we decline a few times.
    • Instead of asking “What can I do for you,” (which is nice) think of something yourself, like “Can we get together on Monday afternoons and go to the gym together for the rest of the semester?”
    • Don’t ignore the grief. Not saying anything is worse than saying something that might be upsetting. Reassure them that you don’t mind talking about who they lost and listening to memories or concerns.
  • In the same vein — if your friend doesn’t want to talk, don’t force them. They’ll come to you when they’re ready, and that’s when you listen and make them lots of tea.

More advice and comments would be greatly appreciated — feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.

Public Pedagogy of Everyday Objects & Spaces Encounter: Table Talk

Karen’s Table 2

I am drawn to Karen’s Table 2. I would name it my Florida Sunshine Breakfast Table–my grandmother used to call orange juice we drank every morning at her house “Florida Sunshine.” Its round structure and funky graphics make it a fun table suitable for casual breakfasts.

My family eats most of its meals together around our round kitchen table. Unlike many of my peers, I grew up with the expectation that we would all eat together around 6pm and could not leave unless we were excused. We still even abide by the same seating arrangements claimed decades ago. One major (and traumatic shift) notwithstanding, my mother sits closest to the cooking area, my father next to her looking out the window, my brother next to dad, and me with my back against the window. My father used to sit in front of the window, but he moved to my original seat after having chemotherapy in the mid 1990s. It’s much easier to get in-and-out of, and farthest away from the cold window.

The first time I brought a boyfriend home for dinner, he sat in my brother’s traditional seat. A stern “That is MY seat” from my older (and much taller) brother scared the pants off of him and has been fodder for jokes for years.

Every family moment, big and small, was discussed around our dinner table. For me, it was a sounding area for advice regarding school dances, report cards, college applications and more. I believe the circular format of my kitchen table made it easier to discuss topics and listen to everyone’s opinion.

To me, having a place at the table means one’s position within a group is valued. I prefer the dynamics of a round table, as it doesn’t have the hierarchy inherent in a table with a “head” seat. Tables are created in many different shapes and styles and provide diverse functions. As seen in our readings, a Japanese tea ceremony table may be seen as a bench by Westerners. A banquet table in a fancy dining room provides a much different dinner setting than a kitchen island with stools.

My old Cetaphil face wash

Metaphorically, tables could be thought of as a theatrical stage. It provides a setting for events to occur: group meals, party food presentations, market transactions. The stage, along with the presentation of objects on it, is crafted through creative choices. Different stages yield to different experiences.

Thinking about a different kind of table–a dressing table– I looked up 2 face wash products: Cetaphil and Mychelle. A few months ago I flipped out over my skin, thinking that I was allergic to something in Cetaphil that made my skin extra dry (sulfates). I went to a local natural grocery store and was told that the Mychelle Honeydew Cleanser would be much better for me.

The face wash I’m currently using

I looked up these two products through Good Guide and Skin Deep and saw that while Mychelle has a lower hazard score (1 vs. 3), Cetaphil’s Health/Society/Environment rating is much better (7.4 vs. 6.3). It’s interesting that Mychelle is marketed as a natural, organic product but does not have highly rated working conditions. I hope that companies do not forget ethical treatment of human beings while striving for ecological beneficence.

Assignment: Make a personal connection to one of the tables, name the table (and designate its page number). At your blog entry 2 introduce yourself to the others in your group with a story that relates to your chosen table by responding to one or more prompts. Use Good Guide & Skin Deep to learn about the social, environmental, and health performance of household objects in your home. Share one discovery. 

All in the Family

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about Nature vs. Nurture, and wondering if we’re all destined to become our mothers (or fathers). Which certainly wouldn’t be terrible, just something interesting to consider. Specifically, is weight influenced more by genetics or socialization? After reading a bit on the topic, I still wonder if I love chocolate because my genes influence my taste preferences, or because I learned at a young age that it was a special (and delicious) treat.

There is, however, a lot of comfort in recognizing yourself as part of a family tree. I realized this while studying in Italy a few years ago, in a situation that has become one of my fondest memories.

After a dreary, winter week in Florence, I visited the Uffizi Museum to restart my art-school mojo. I passed through the first few exhibits, feeling homesick and lonely, until I entered the Botticelli room. I immediately stopped in awe to gaze at The Birth of Venus. As I slowly turned around to view his other paintings, I was shocked to realize that Botticelli’s women looked exactly like my mother’s family: tall, pear-shaped, fair and redheaded. My new insight was confirmed by an Italian man who tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to Venus and said, “Look, you are her — she is you! You are love, come have dinner with me tonight?”

Although I politely turned my Florentine suitor down, I left the museum not quite as lonely as I entered. After all, I had just been surrounded by images of my family. Perhaps Botticelli’s models were my distant cousins? Although my hips and skin may not measure up to today’s standard of beauty, I find a lot of reassurance in the fact that they suited my ancestors just fine.

The self-portrait above is a painting I made after this experience.

Botticellie’s original.