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“Yearly, on the vigil”: Why Universities Need to Take Time to Grieve

a lit candle against a dark background

We’ve just passed the anniversary of my dear sister’s death. Each year, that anniversary hits differently – sometimes softly, sometimes hard – and even if I might have let the date slip by, a family member (or Facebook) will remind me. And I am always grateful. These yearly markers of loss are at least as important as the happy ones. Just as we take time to notice anniversaries of birth and marriage and triumph, so we should stop and take stock of what our losses mean.

We do this collectively already. Especially through the first decade, we were reminded each year of what happened on September 11. People remember where they were when Princess Diana died, or Robert Kennedy, or John F. Kennedy. We’ve just marked ten years since the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. I grew up in Halifax, and although it’s more than a century old, Haligonians always remember the anniversary of the Halifax explosion (and give a giant Christmas tree to thank Boston for its help, a lovely example of how gratitude can follow sorrow). This is communal grieving, but it is also the meaning that we make of catastrophe: it’s been a year since, it’s been 10 years since, it’s been a century since….

person's feet in running shoes, standing in water on cement, with a focus on their reflection

Returning to those moments of grief is not wallowing. It’s not getting stuck or refusing to move on. It is essential to healing, as we notice not just the loss but where we are now, how we are coping, how we are different, how we are the same. Those sad annual dates in our calendars, like the happy ones, are necessary moments to take stock, to meditate, to reflect. If we don’t, if we ignore them, that’s when we are in danger.

This past week and this month, the world is passing through another of those markers. People are sharing pictures or journal entries or just general reminders about our last normal week in March 2020. This is the anniversary of our world in a pandemic, the week in the month in the year the world changed.

In a recent piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Josh Eyler, the director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi, is quoted urging universities not to smooth over the deep and varied experiences of loss for students, faculty, and staff: “I can see universities are sending out the message: We’re headed back to normal,” he writes. “I understand that, from a logical point of view, that’s the message you want to send students. But I don’t actually think that message is helpful as a community.” That cheery “situation normal” message works if your primary mission is maintaining or increasing enrolment and growth and cash; but that isn’t a university’s mission. University is not a business, and students are not economic units in waiting. Learning is at the heart of what we do, and real learning depends on acknowledging and working through the grief and loss and the disappointments – large and small – of the past year.

What then should universities – and failing that, individual instructors – do to show that we have just gone through something that it is dangerous to ignore and valuable to acknowledge? That’s where I am struggling.

A thorny poppy bud drooping low but ready to open and show a pink and purple flower

I can think of a lot of smaller ways we can make space for conversations about our experiences in the past year; institutions can hold open town hall meetings (virtual of course) and individual instructors can ask students, if they are comfortable, to share with each other what their particular experience of the past year has been. For literature professors specifically and humanities professors generally, though, we can think of our role as midwives to meaning here, even if it means shifting some of our content and assessment to make room for that work.

David Kessler is an expert on grief and a former colleague of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. He got permission to add to her five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance -- a sixth that I take to heart as I think forward to the fall term: making meaning out of grief. That is a powerful thing for an individual to get to, but teachers like me have a privileged space to make collective meaning in our classrooms from the year of Covid-19.

~Shannon Murray

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