“The grief process is very fluid. Most of us do not proceed in an orderly fashion through the stages of shock to acceptance.”
This was the first line I read on the handout from the campus counseling office before scanning the rest of the worksheet, wryly observing the neatly numbered stages one through 10. As a writing teacher, I wondered what kind of form this worksheet could have taken that was not orderly and somehow still managed to articulate a process for grief, as if there can be such a thing as a process. Seeing these guidelines in black and white made the task seemingly more impossible than it already was — in two hours I would have to tell my students that one of their classmates was killed in an accident over the weekend.
We had just begun the final unit in the course that I’m teaching this semester, and I was steeped in the thrill of putting the pieces of everything we’ve been learning together into a semblance of an idea, if not an answer. On Monday afternoon, as I prepared the lesson for the next day, I received a formal notification of the death of one of my students. I was stupefied on so many levels. First, at only 18, he was gone. Then, remembering our last conversation — I’m glad it was filled with laughter. Then, wondering that the news was delivered in such a way — via an email. The shock of the news was overwhelming and I’m still not quite sure what to do with myself.
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It’s rare that I fall into such a deep depression that I think life is both absurd and meaningless. In not following any particular stages of grief, I come to some way of thinking that resembles bargaining. Why couldn’t it have been me, who has had 30 more years of a life? When will Flagstaff drivers learn to be cautious? Musings like these only put me back in a weird shock-spiral. I needed help, but not just for myself. I called the counseling center for advice on how to talk with my students about what happened. And I decided I had to tell them that day because I don’t know how possible it really is to postpone heartbreak.
The day before receiving the worksheet on grief, I had just finished reading an article by Georges Perec, who discusses the idea of the “infra-ordinary,” which is the opposite of extraordinary. He writes, “in our haste to measure the historic, significant, and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible.” I first became aware of this idea thanks to Brian Doyle, who suggested that it is possible to find awe in the daily-ness of our lives. I’ve spent the better part of several years teaching myself to do this, and it is an ongoing process. Rather than looking for those singular moments of perfect sunsets, I try to revel in the multitude of mundanities that occur throughout my day. A delicious sip of coffee. The soft touch of the pad of my lip gloss to my lips. The way a fuzzy pair of socks feels after a long day. The nuthatches and their seed gathering and burying routines.
But what happens when the extraordinary meets up with the infra-ordinary? When tragedy becomes a kind of daily-ness? The pandemic death toll is an example. For many, these numbers are headlines, factoids and amalgamations of a collective tragedy rather than individuals. Perec notes that it’s the headlines we look for and remember, but to me, it seems more like we are suffering from an inability to distinguish between what is truly extraordinary and what is part of the daily-ness of our lives. For example, we could say that people die every day, and we have seen this exponentially during the pandemic. Yet these pandemic numbers are extraordinary. As is the death of an 18-year-old crossing the street. What is to be done? I’m not sure because for some of us, another headline will replace this one and we will be too exhausted and overwhelmed eking out an existence to make distinctions between the outrageous and the mundane. The headlines blur together, as do the days, as do the years.
I couldn’t take these thoughts to class though. Instead, we arranged the chairs in a circle, and I shared what happened. Students shared what they knew, but a majority of the class had not heard. There is no good way to talk about someone’s death, especially when it was so unexpected. This tragedy is one of so many that students have already experienced. As much as I wanted to end class early, my students wanted to move forward with some semblance of normalcy. And so, I introduced the next topic of our unit: the modern human condition. Grief was now, unexpectedly, part of this lesson.
I’ve been reflecting on our desire to stay in class that day, to have this academic inquiry infuse our grief. It can help ease the pain to do something normal, something ordinary. The caveat is, though, that we cannot forget the grief because it does not forget us. It permeates our lives in ways that are sometimes unrecognizable, but it will continue to build to a breaking point where we act strangely because we no longer remember that we tried to forget a feeling or, in this case, a senseless death. I’m not sure where this may fall on the stages of the grief scale. My students and I are creating our own template for moving forward together.
In memory of Ethan and with affection for my seminar students.