Supporting Student Wellness beyond “How Are You?”

I’m hopeful that the pandemic has made us a little more compassionate and aware of how stressful the lives of our students are, and I’m happy to see faculty on social media talking about building mechanisms into their classes to check in with students about how they are holding up. My own institution has repeatedly reminded faculty of the resources available to students and urged us to connect students with those resources, but I know from personal experience that it’s a lot more effective to tell students about the specific resources they need than to tell them about a few dozen resources they might need. When someone feels a need, they pay attention.

One of the cleverest check-in tools I’ve seen was created by my amazing friend, Alex Lockett. She wrote an online survey that she will send to her students once a week during the semester to allow her to understand what they are dealing with and how. Depending on the feedback she gets on the survey each week, she can curate the support and types of resources she suggests to the class.

Alex gave me permission to share her survey. I want to highlight that she is generously sharing her work here and asks only that you give her credit if you end up using or modifying her survey, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Here is Alex’s survey.

What I like about this survey:

  • It’s not about making sure students are “doing wellness right.” The survey isn’t used to penalize or shame students who are struggling with self-care. The questions are authentic, caring inquiries into students’ wellbeing. I can imagine asking these questions of individual students during office hours or in the transition time before or after a class meeting. They are conversation openers.
  • Students can opt to complete it anonymously, which further removes any connotation of shame or judgment.
  • The survey is about wellness rather than productivity. So often, wellness and productivity are conflated, with the measure of a person’s wellbeing becoming how many deadlines they met or how many pages they read or some other “how many” metric. Alex’s survey avoids that by focusing on what people did for their wellbeing rather than on how much of something they did or what they did not do.
  • The question that asks students “how are you feeling today?” offers students nine faces to choose from to represent their current state, ranging from a toothy grinning face to a red nearly exploding face. To my mind, this is so much more effective than asking folks to rank themselves on a scale of 1-10 or to choose from likert-type options (good, very good, etc.). It also shows audience awareness—emojis are how our students are more likely to express their moods.
  • The question on different aspects of self-care serve as reminders of what people taking care of themselves should do each day. For example, “Have you eaten in the past 12-24 hours? If you say no, you need to feed yourself. If you don’t feel like cooking, try eating a handful of nuts or some fresh fruit. I highly recommend always keeping some trail mix around because sometimes we get so preoccupied that we neglect a sustainable meal schedule.” The question itself offers concrete suggestions about what self-care looks like and the suggestions are appropriate for college students.

This survey is designed for use in a classroom setting, but I think it could be easily modified by department chairs or managers of non-academic workplaces to check in with folks. I’m going to create a version of it to append to the form tutors in the Writing Center use at the end of each shift to summarize and reflect on the shift.

Rejecting False Choices: Moving from OR to AND or even NEITHER

There’s a poem that gets a lot of traction in the several Facebook widow support groups I’ve joined called “He Is Gone” by David Harkins (the pronoun in the title is flexible—I’ve seen the poem called “She Is Gone,” too). You can read the poem in its entirety here if you like, but the first two and last two lines alone will tell you everything you need to know about the poem for the purposes of my discussion here.

The first two lines:

You can shed tears that he is gone,

or you can smile because he has lived.

And the last two lines:

Or you can do what he’d want:

smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

The ten lines between the ones I’ve quoted present several sad or mournful responses to a partner’s death and then the word “or” and a happy or celebratory alternative. It’s a poem that I suspect is meant to inspire positivity and an attitude of gratitude rather than of forlornness among folks who’ve lost a partner. The repeated contrast of the “sad” and socially awkward behavior to the “happy” and more socially-approved behavior drills in the moral lesson that it is better to be happy.

The poem makes the rounds in the support groups so regularly that I see it at least once every few weeks and it was even read aloud at a face-to-face widow support group meeting I went to recently and discussed as being “inspiring” and “aspirational.”

This poem makes me cringe for several reasons. First, it fails my favorite grief writer Megan Devine’s “platitude check.” Devine says if you can tack “so stop feeling so sad” onto a statement, it is a platitude. Cha-ching! Tacking “so stop feeling so sad” onto the lines I’ve quoted above from the poem makes it clear the poem is a series of platitudes. Platitudes are insipid and unoriginal, but the real harm, to my mind, is that they convey moral judgment and are often said with the implication, “You’re doing it wrong.” When someone posts this poem in a widow support group, they are implying that those of us who are crying over our loss are doing something wrong.

But being made up purely of platitudes is not this poem’s worst offense, in my opinion. Even worse is that it uses the flawed logic of “or” to imply that a widowed person has only two behavioral options: (1) “shed tears that he is gone” OR (2) “smile because he has lived.” I can think of lots of options between these two. Just today, I’ve laughed about a few wonderful memories of my husband, cried and smiled at the same time while looking at photos from our last camping trip together, and had a (albeit one-sided) conversation with my husband about a decision I am trying to make, which involved neither tears nor smiles. As my examples show, it is also totally possible for someone to do both of the behaviors that the poem sets up as opposing behaviors–in other words “shed[ding] tears that he is gone” AND “smil[ing] because he has lived”—and to do neither of the behaviors.  The logic of or insists that someone must make a choice, that there are limited options, and that one choice is the wrong one, so there’s built in judgment.

Not only is there built in judgment, but the “right choice” is not the one that is even necessarily in the widow’s best interest. No, it is the one that is socially acceptable and makes everyone around the widow feel good, but it may very well require the widow to deny what she is actually feeling. The poem reinforces the idea that what matters more than a grieving person’s actual griefwork is how the people around her feel—do they feel comfortable? is everyone smiling? is there a general air of positivity around every interaction?

What makes this poem especially dangerous is that grieving people themselves are sharing it and aspiring to live it. As I said, I come across this poem on widow support group pages and in support group meetings—this is not something others who don’t understand what being a widow is like shared with me. This is being shared by widows with widows. That is how internalized shame around grief works.

In general, my hackles go up when I hear two options with “or” between them because it so often implies a false and morally charged choice. I think of “male or female,” “single or married,” and “happy or sad” and find each binary to be deeply problematic. From a rhetorical standpoint, a question offering two choices with “or” between them persuades the person answering the question to choose between the two options, even if they don’t like the options or feel neither one fits them. When a situation is framed as having only two possible options, we find it hard to think outside those options, so the framing of the question actually shapes what we are capable of thinking of. A grieving person asked to choose between tears and smiles will often have a hard time thinking of other options.

I had a challenging interaction with a nurse before my surgery last week that illustrates the power of being asked a question with only two possible answers. In the course of collecting demographic information from me, the nurse asked whether I was single or married. When I answered that I was widowed, she said I had to choose between single and married. My mind immediately went to trying to figure out which answer fit me better, although I knew I didn’t identify as either. Finally, I said, “Neither, I’m widowed.” The nurse told me I had to choose either single or married and we went back and forth for a bit, with me refusing to choose and her refusing to accept “widowed” as my answer. In this situation, I had to exert a significant amount of energy to continue pushing back against the false choice with my answer of “neither.” (If I am asked this asinine question in the future, perhaps I’ll just refer the asker to this blog post.)

I came across this Martha Beck quote in Tricycle magazine, which I think captures the “and” concept beautifully:

Grief is like a stream running through our life, and it’s important to understand that it doesn’t go away. Our grief lasts a lifetime, but our relationship to it changes. Moving on is the period in which the knot of your grief is untied. It’s the time of renewal.

Instead of presenting mind-numbing and preachy platitudes or false choices, Beck acknowledges that grief—and I would argue, most complicated emotions—flows throughout our life and we don’t have to reject it for more comfortable emotions. We can feel grief alongside all sorts of other emotions, including happiness. We can grieve and smile. And we can grieve in ways that don’t look like stereotypical grieving. Right now, my tending of my late husband’s garden is a form of grieving. I am choosing and and neither regularly and I pity the fools who tell me I’m doing it wrong.


On a completely different note, the current situation in Afghanistan is devastating to everyone, but particularly women. It’s not lost on me that if I lived in Afghanistan, I wouldn’t be allowed to leave my house as I have no male relatives nearby, the closest being my stepson, who lives 30 minutes away. This post on Joanna Goddard’s blog suggests some concrete ways to help.

Say Thank You instead of I’m Sorry

Earlier this week, some colleagues and I were discussing by email a decision that needs to be made. I tried to follow the discussion, but six weeks out from being widowed, my brain just wasn’t up to it. I couldn’t remember the context from email to email, couldn’t make myself care about the decision in the grand scheme of things, and as each new email contribution to the discussion arrived in my inbox, I felt less capable of even reading.

Finally, I sent a reply-all email that simply said, “My brain is not able to process this right now, so I am going to defer to all of you on it. Thanks for understanding.” (Actually, as proof of how unable to process anything my brain was, I actually wrote “Thanks for understand” and only noticed my mistake later when I caught a glimpse of the email in my sent folder. Nonetheless, I think my message was communicated.)

Now I can’t say if my colleagues were irritated to get my email or if they did understand or if they thought I was a big slacker for opting out of the conversation, and frankly, as a past therapist told me, other people’s opinions of me are none of my business. What I do know is that I felt instantly relieved to have practiced a small bit of self-care. I set a boundary by explicitly opting out of a conversation that did not require my participation; and perhaps even more importantly, instead of apologizing for it, I thanked people in advance for their understanding.

Whereas “I’m sorry” assumes the reader will react negatively, “thank you for understanding” gives the reader the benefit of the doubt and predisposes the person to be understanding because they’ve already been thanked for being understanding. It would be awkward after being thanked to then be a jerk about it. “I’m sorry” assumes there is something to be sorry about; “thank you for understanding” assumes the reader should be understanding.

In the case of the conversation I opted out of, there is nothing for me to be sorry about. I have five brilliant colleagues who can easily handle the decision without my input. Plus, after a year of intense and exhausting caregiving and then unexpectedly being widowed, it’s normal to have limited capacity. If I were to apologize, I would imply that someone in my position should be able to actively participate in the conversation.   

I hear colleagues—mostly female—apologize regularly for things that do not merit apologies: not taking on a service role that is known to be thankless, not bringing fresh baked goods to a meeting, not being able to attend a meeting that conflicts with a child’s performance or game or pick-up time, not having print outs at a meeting at which everyone was told to do their own printing, not being able to stay beyond the scheduled end time of a meeting, needing accommodations, and I could go on. Of course, women have been conditioned to be apologetic, but those of us with privilege—and I have a ton, being a white tenured full professor—can help normalize that no one should be sorry for having healthy boundaries by stopping with all the damn apologies already.

I cringe every time I get an email that begins with an apology for taking so long to answer. Email is not for urgent communication and taking a few days to respond to an email is ok. It does not merit an apology. But the apology implies not only that the sender should have replied sooner, but that the recipient should not be taking a few days to respond to emails either. In other words, the apology implies that everyone should feel bad for not answering emails immediately, which obscures the fact that most email does not warrant an immediate response—in fact, a lot of email doesn’t warrant any response at all.

Our compulsion to apologize for having healthy boundaries that acknowledge that work is only one part of our lives actually undermines our ability to have healthy boundaries by implying to others that our boundaries are a problem. “Thank you for understanding” normalizes those healthy boundaries.

On that note, thank you for understanding that I am having surgery next week and will likely not post. 😊