on grief

It feels strange and a little silly, a little overdramatic, to be thinking and writing about grief right now. I am fortunate – I have not lost anyone to COVID-19. I don’t even know anyone personally who has had COVID-19 (or at least, I haven’t heard about it). And yet, this last weekend before I start the 2020-2021 school year with my students, I find myself thinking about and processing grief.

I came across this interview with David Kessler early in the stay-at-home order, sometime in late March or early April. It resonated with me then and it resonates with me now. But the grief I felt earlier this year, when the pandemic still felt very new, is different than what I’m feeling now. Then, I was dealing with the unknown of what is coming, the uncertainty around how to protect myself and those around me. Now, after 6 months, I’ve adjusted to some things – masking in the grocery store (and feeling relief that everyone is masked now, instead of feeling like I’m the paranoid one), having only socially distanced, outdoor gatherings with friends, only doing take out/delivery from restaurants.

As we transition from the summer to the fall, the start of the school year has brought on a whole new set of grief. This past week was really rough for me both physically and mentally. My first week “back to school” is the teacher preparation week, full of meetings and planning and organizing the classroom. This year, that week was spent at home, doing meetings from Google Meet, figuring out how to teach remotely and teaching myself (and some of my colleagues) different tech tools. Spending 4-5 hrs in back-to-back meetings, processing all of the changes while also trying to be prepared for this coming week with students hit me harder than I expected. It was easy to spiral into unproductive, complaining, ranting conversations with coworkers – I can’t believe they’re expecting us to… Why don’t we know how to… Why won’t the district let us use… How are we supposed to… And as my emotions went all over the map this week, I realize that I’m grieving.

I’m grieving the loss of being in the building, seeing the nervous faces of my students (and them seeing my nervous face) as we get to know each other, as we interact. Even should we return to the school building this year, I know that it will not be the same – being in the building with everyone masked, staying apart, is unsettling. I went in once last week to grab a school laptop and it was strange. You know how it’s supposed to feel in the school building and it does not feel that way at all, and so – here comes a wave of grief.

I’m grieving the fact that I may not be physically in the same room as this group of students at all this school year. We’re doing all of quarter 1 remotely, and there’s no telling whether things will be at a place in November for us to be back in the building together. I am grieving the loss of lab experiments – this year, my chemistry and physics students may not do a physical lab experiment at all. We have to rethink how we are doing everything this year, and that is another exhausting reminder that nothing is the same as it once was.

This summer has also thrown a glaring spotlight on the unhealed, infected wounds of racism at my school. I won’t go into the details, but social media and zoom local school council meetings revealed a lot over the past two months. I knew these hurts were present in my school community, but in my privilege and obliviousness (and I recognize the privilege of being able to be oblivious) I did not realize how deep some of those wounds run. And so I’m grieving that too – how do we even start healing our school community when the wounds are so deep, especially when we cannot meet in person? How do we move forward when there are those that are demanding their right to comfort? Transitioning to remote learning has taken up all of my capacity – how do I also make room for the discomfort of addressing systemic racism?

I find myself at a loss. I’m usually the person with the answers – I know how things work, I remember the information I’ve been given, so people come to me with their logistical questions – how do you do …? what do you do if …? what’s our policy on …? and I know, or can find, the answers. This year, I have no answers, and so that adds to the list of things I’m grieving.

I do not know how to handle grief. On Friday, at a course team meeting, I was upset and frustrated and expressed it visibly. Normally, I hold it together and I push through, I figure out the details, do what needs to be done. Friday afternoon, after logging off everything, I cried. I don’t remember the last time I cried over work.

As a society, we don’t talk about grief much. I’ve had friends lose their parents, siblings, friends, and I have never felt like I had a good response. Words feel painfully inadequate. And so I don’t know how to respond to, talk about my own grief. But this school year is going to be a constant reminder of what is not. And therefore, there will be this constant undertow of grief.

I’m just sitting with that today. And I will have to sit with grief throughout this school year, in the many ways it manifests. I will have to remember that we are all grieving what used to be, what could have been, what should be.

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