All posts by Elizabeth Kleinfeld

Noticing Ableist Assumptions about Meeting/Class Discussions

Last week I was in a meeting of about 20 people in which a topic I have very strong opinions about came up. I very much wanted to contribute to the discussion, but other people were jumping in so quickly that I had a hard time really processing what they were saying while simultaneously trying to organize the complex thoughts in my head. Every time I thought I had my thoughts organized enough to articulate them aloud, someone else would start talking and I would need to leave my thoughts aside to listen to the speaker. After about 15 minutes of spirited discussion that I had not contributed to in any discernible way, the discussion slowed down and finally, the person facilitating the meeting asked if there were final thoughts. The following three seconds of silence gave me the opportunity I needed to finally organize my thoughts and I was able to share them.

Had there not been those few seconds of silence, I might have not contributed at all to the discussion. To others in the meeting, it might then have appeared that I was completely disengaged or had no opinion or thoughts on the topic, which was not at all the case.

Unfortunately, this is a fairly common experience for me. I have moments of being able to think quickly enough to jump into a conversation immediately, but it is more common for me to need some time—sometimes just a few seconds, as in the example above, and other times a few minutes—to collect my thoughts and get them ready for prime time. This was true before the exhaustion of being my husband’s caregiver and then unexpectedly a widow kicked in, and it’s gotten more pronounced since then.

While silence during a discussion can appear to be evidence of lack of engagement, there are many other reasons someone might not participate in a discussion:

  • Like me in the example above, they may be a reflective thinker who needs time and/or quiet to process thoughts.
  • They may be a deep listener who actually pays 100% attention to what others are saying, which means they aren’t simultaneously formulating what they will say.
  • They may have a cognitive processing difference that makes it hard for them to make sense of rapid or overlapping speech.
  • They may be tired, undernourished, and/or underhydrated. All of these conditions affect cognitive function.
  • They may be anxious, either about a particular situation in their life or they may have an anxiety condition. Either way, cognitive function could be affected.
  • They may be introverted and despite all of society’s pressures to participate in the type of discussions typical of meetings and classes, that simply may not be the way they are wired.

Despite all these very good reasons for not participating in discussions, I hear colleagues immediately judge students and colleagues who don’t participate in discussions in meeting and classes as “lazy,” “disengaged,” or “in over their heads.” I do it, too; in fact, I’ve noticed that my default is to wonder what is “wrong” with the person. This is an ableist way of looking at the situation, assuming there is something defective about the person who is not responding the way I want. I’ve been working over the last few years to notice myself having that thought and remind myself of all the very good reasons a person may have for not participating in a discussion. To mitigate my own tendencies to make this unfair judgment, I have been working on ways to build some silence and processing time into facilitating discussions.

As a teacher, I begin each class with a five-minute writing prompt designed to help students collect their thoughts for the discussion we’ll have in class. I also use the classic “count to ten in your head” after asking a question before I speak again. As an NCFDD coach, I allow generous silence during conversations to allow folks time to collect thoughts. But I do not typically allow silence in the meetings I facilitate, in part because I have prided myself on running “efficient” meetings and silence does not appear to be “efficient.”  

I have much more work to do on this front as a meeting facilitator. Allowing silence in meetings means sacrificing efficiency; I hate meetings and want to get them done as quickly as possible. But I recognize that getting them done quickly at the expense of restricting fruitful discussion is counter-productive. I am going to start playing with beginning important discussions by asking everyone to take two minutes to jot down their thoughts.

As a meeting participant, I am going to start asking for a moment to collect my thoughts. For example, in the meeting I described at the beginning of this post, I could have said, “I have some thoughts to share but I need a moment to collect them. Please bear with me.” I have never seen anyone do this in a meeting and I suspect other participants who don’t need the time I need to collect thoughts may find it unprofessional or even disrespectful of their time. I have tenure and can afford for people to think less of me, so I am going to try this strategy, but for folks with less privilege than I have, it may not be a viable strategy.

Meeting facilitators could allow folks to continue conversations that begin in meetings by email or on a discussion board for a certain amount of time, which would allow folks who need time to collect their thoughts to do that. In the past, I’ve been criticized for sending email follow ups after discussions in meetings for “dragging on a conversation that is over.” I’ve been told, “Too bad you didn’t bring that point up in the discussion when we could have done something with it.” These responses rely on the assumption that not contributing to the discussion in the moment can only be due to laziness or other negative characteristics.

At the end of chapter two of Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, Margaret Price describes many clever ways of making class attendance and participation policies less ableist. Many of the strategies she describes could also be used in meetings.

What can you do to allow time and space for reflection in the discussions you facilitate or participate in?

The Value of Grief & Trauma Communities

Grief is isolating and the way we (don’t) deal with it in our culture—glossing over it, minimizing it, focusing on “the bright side” and “the blessings” and pushing the negative feelings aside—makes grief even more isolating because it can make us think we are the only ones who feel the way we do.

Being in multiple widow support groups has shown me that there are lots of people who can relate to the pain and sadness I feel. I have learned that I am not the only person to wonder about how long to wear my wedding band, how to deal with unwanted questions or advice, and how to cope with holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays.  The particular nuances of my marriage, caregiving experience, and widowing are unique but not nearly as different from the experiences of others as I had expected. For me, connecting with others who have experienced a similar loss has made me realize that although I am alone in being widowed from my amazing husband, I am not at all alone in being widowed from an amazing husband. Understanding that I am actually surrounded by people who are also grieving, even if they are grieving very differently from me, helps me feel normal about my process and also makes it more possible for me to extend compassion to myself and others. The support groups have given me a chance to see a wide range of responses to grief and a wide range of ways to offer support.

I wrote last month about resources for grieving that I’ve found, and now, 11 weeks out from my loss, I want to emphasize how learning about grief through blogs, podcasts, TED Talks, and support groups has helped me feel at peace with my grief. I don’t mean I’ve felt less sadness or cried less or experienced any less of negative emotions than before I learned about grief. What I mean is I have felt normal about my grieving. I have not judged myself when I have started crying in person, been triggered by something completely random, been unable to dump out the now-11-weeks-old glass of juice in the fridge that was my husband’s last glass of juice, or done any of the many, many illogical things I have done since becoming a widow. While my grief experience has been challenging, I have not had the extra challenge on top of it of feeling like I’m “doing it wrong” or I “shouldn’t be feeling/acting this way.” Nope—I’ve known because of what I’ve learned about grief by joining formal and informal communities of people grieving that I am doing it exactly right and there are an infinite number of ways of doing it right.

I’ve been speaking specifically of grief, but I think what I’ve said about grief can also be applied to trauma. Like grief, trauma is isolating. Just as people seem to feel free to judge the grieving others do, people seem to feel justified in judging how others process their trauma. As a sexual assault survivor, I have often felt the judgment of others about my process of working through the trauma I experienced. My participation in sexual assault survivor support groups helped normalize the pace at which I was processing my trauma and many of the confusing emotions I felt.  

Grief and trauma are isolating; when you think you are the only one feeling what you’re feeling and that nobody else can relate, you may further isolate yourself. Finding a grief or trauma community, even if you participate minimally or only as a lurker, can be powerful. It can make you feel less self-conscious. It can help you stand up to those who judge the way you are grieving as wrong or going on too long. It can help you stop comparing yourself and your grieving to others and their grieving.

As an introvert, I understand that the idea of being in a support group could be really uncomfortable. There are many grief and trauma communities that you can passively participate in, such as online support groups and Facebook groups. I joined six different widow support groups on Facebook and only participate actively in two of them, but I find value in reading the posts in the other four groups even if I don’t post or comment. I think for some folks, listening to podcasts and reading memoirs by people who have experienced similar losses or traumas could be as effective as participating in a support group. The point is to connect, whether passively or actively, with others experiencing something similar.

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. 😊

Grief Resources: You Don’t Need to Grieve Alone

I don’t recall there being any grief resources beyond the middle school guidance counselor when my mother died when I was 12, so I have been pleasantly surprised by the richness of resources available to me in dealing with my husband’s death. I’ve found that not only are there good resources available on grief in general, there are many on specific flavors of grief, such as losing a partner, losing a parent, losing a child, and miscarriage.

In case it would benefit others, here are some that I have found very helpful.

  • Personal connections. When my dog walker heard that my husband had died, she offered to put me in touch with a friend of hers who is about my age and was widowed three years ago. I texted the woman and we immediately became friends. I appreciate being able to talk to another widow who, like me, lost their partner relatively young, and also has a teenager at home. When the first conversation you have with someone is about one of the worst things that ever happened to you, you tend to bond pretty quickly.
  • Facebook groups. My new widowed friend told me about a few Facebook groups for widows she belongs to and cautioned me about a few other Facebook groups for widows. It turns out there are many, many Facebook groups for widows, with many different angles: groups for religious widows, non-religious widows, widows in Colorado and other specific locations, widows who like to travel, young widows, widows with young children, widows curious about dating but not ready yet, widows ready to date, widows of color, widows who lost partners to suicide, and more. Of course, there are the occasional trolls in some groups (thus the warning from my new friend about a few of the groups that seem to attract more than their fair share of trolls), but I suspect the widow groups are more susceptible to trolls than other grief groups might be because of gendered norms around women’s behavior (for example, a widowed woman is a cheating whore if she ever dates or has sex after her partner dies).
  • Websites and Blogs. A google search of “widow support” turns up the usual millions of website hits, and you can do searches for other types of bereavement by typing in the type of loss you experienced and the word “support” (loss of parent support, loss to suicide support, etc.). Some of the websites I’ve found particularly useful are Megan Devine’s Refuge in Grief, End of Life University blog (and podcast) and Cake. I also came across this website with tons of resources for folks who have lost a child or a pregnancy.
  • Trips. There are organized trips, conferences, and cruises specifically for widowed people! I am seriously considering attending Camp Widow in March, a three-day conference by and for widowed folks. Several folks I met at a widows’ picnic (see details below) had been to Camp Widow in the past and they all had rave reviews; several had gone multiple times. There are raft trips for grieving folks and cruises for widows.
  • Groups that meet in person. The funeral home I went through to have my husband cremated also recommended a local organization that hosts both in person and online support groups; I suspect you could call any reputable local funeral home to get information on grief groups in your area. I’ve heard from other widows that hospice organizations also can direct folks to local grief support groups. Through the Camp Widow website, I learned about an international organization for widows that has a local chapter. I contacted the local chapter and learned that there was an upcoming widows’ picnic, which I attended. And despite whatever image pops into your head when you imagine a widows’ picnic, this event was full of laughter and four-letter words, which to my mind, are two key ingredients for a good time.
  • Online support groups. I went to the meetup website and did a search on widows in Denver and found all sorts of online events. Similar searches using terms like “lost a parent” turned up many options.
  • Podcasts and Ted Talks. A friend recommended the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, and I second the recommendation. Folks at the widows picnic told me about two good ones for adults who have lost a parent: Dead Parents Podcast and Dead Parent Club. If you search Ted Talks for “grief,” you’ll find over 200; I’m working my way through the talks on this list.
  • Workshops. A friend just told me about these online workshops for processing grief through writing.
  • Journals. I’ve previously mentioned a grief journal that ended up being thrown across the room; don’t get that one. I highly recommend Megan Devine’s How to Carry What Can’t Be Fixed, which is flexible enough to be useful to folks who have lost a partner, parent, child, or someone else, and uses writing but also sketching, collage, and other creative activities.

What I’ve mentioned here is just a taste of the many wonderful grief resources available right now, and while I have found the particular resources I’ve mentioned helpful, they may not be the right ones for you, and that’s ok, because there are many, many others out there. My point is that you don’t need to be completely alone in your grief.

Talk about Grief (It Will Be Messy)

I’ve posted recently about some of the dysfunctional ways we respond to grief and loss, such as asking “How are you?” with the expectation of a brief and positive answer and measuring and scoring grief. Ira Glass notes in the first segment of the recent This American Life show devoted to grief that because of COVID, a very high number of Americans are now grieving. We would all benefit from learning how to talk about grief better.

I think Americans have a very low ability collectively to sit with uncomfortable feelings such as grief. We try to glibly glide right past them or encourage people to “get over it” quickly. We tell ourselves it’s rude or awkward to bring up grief in conversation, so we don’t, but the truth is that by pretending grief isn’t happening, we make it that much harder to talk about grief and we imply that people who are grieving are a problem and they need to hurry up and “get over it” so the rest of us won’t feel so uncomfortable.

In the past I have told myself that I am doing a grieving person a favor by glossing over their grief. I have told myself that they are surely not interested in sharing their grief with their colleague or casual acquaintance or boss or whatever I am to them. Perhaps they weren’t, but what I realize now is that it is not up to me to decide what they are interested in. If somebody’s grief makes me uncomfortable, that’s my problem. My job as someone who cares about a grieving person is to be willing to be uncomfortable in order to offer them comfort.

On that note, today I want to focus on some of the responses I have deeply appreciated:

  1. Rambling, inarticulate voice messages from folks that were incredibly touching because they were rambling and inarticulate. The very act of reaching out when you don’t know what to say shows that you recognize the gravity of the situation and you’re willing to risk being awkward to acknowledge someone else’s pain. It is a selfless act in which someone lets go of the ruse that they have answers. Through its own awkwardness, it sets an expectation for an awkward response.
  2. Cards, notes, and emails in which people shared a specific memory of my husband or an aspect of him they would particularly miss. To me, this is so much more meaningful than offering advice or an inspirational quote because it is personalized and indicates an understanding that my grief over my loss of my husband is different from any other grief. Even just one sentence that is personalized—one friend who didn’t know my husband well simply wrote “I remember him as a genial presence at your dinner parties”—comforts me by testifying to the mark my husband left on the world.
  3. Explicit recognition that it just sucks that my husband is gone. The acknowledgment of my loss and the high suck-factor without any attempt to identify a bright side recognizes that negative emotions are completely normal and conveys that I will not be judged for being awkward or teary or morose.

All of these responses demonstrate that another human is trying to connect with me, trying to comfort me, and recognizing that there really is no comfort possible right now, that things are just going to suck for a while and then after a while, they will suck a little bit less. To my mind, there is no one “right” thing to say—any response to grief that acknowledges that grief is normal and that the pain is real is a “right” response. These responses I’ve highlighted resist the social expectation to keep conversation light, positive, and “fun.” (I’ll post at some point in the future about why the concept of “fun” often makes me cringe.)

And while I think there are some wrong things to say (examples I’ve heard are “you’re still sad?” and “how long do you think you’ll be like this?”, which imply that because my grief is a downer for someone else, I need to get over it), even those can be mitigated with a heartfelt, “Oh, that wasn’t what I meant, let me try again. This is really hard to talk about for me.” In fact, asking for a do-over is a strategy I appreciate because it acknowledges the dysfunction embedded in our default ways of dealing with negative emotions and it immediately aims to repair the harm done by the original statement.

So please, be awkward. Say the wrong thing and then catch yourself. Allow yourself to not know what to say and talk anyway. Acknowledge grief in whatever uncomfortable, messy, honest way you can.

Measuring, Scoring, + Ranking Grief

Neoliberalism tends to boil everything down to a number at some level. We measure, we compare, we assess, we score, we set SMART goals. We have all sorts of platitudes about how beneficial this quantification is: what gets measured gets improved, without goals we’ll never grow, how can you know you’re doing better now if you didn’t measure where you started, etc. The underlying premise of these platitudes is that we must always be improving or growing, which to our neoliberalized ears sounds normal and even common sensical.

I will in a later post talk about what is wrong with the assumptions themselves, but for now I want to focus on how this impulse to measure even impacts our expectations and responses to grief.

Since my husband died, I’ve noticed many examples of the impulse to measure applied to grief:

  • Some people have told me I’m “doing well,” which I think they meant as a compliment, but it implies a measuring stick by which I could be doing “not well” or “really well.”  This assumes a baseline expectation of what “well” looks like. Someone today emailed me to find out if I am doing “better” this week than I was last week (they hoped I was). All of this reminds me of the ratings my university gives for performance: exceeds expectations, meets expectations, or does not meet expectations. I suppose if I am deemed by others to be “doing well,” I am either meeting or exceeding expectations. The implication is that other people’s measure of how I’m doing should matter to me. (For the record, it does not.)
  • Then there’s the grief contest, in which someone compares my grief to theirs. People have suggested that my grief over my husband must be more or less than grief they have experienced when they lost a parent, child, sibling, friend, or pet. Another version of this is the comparison of one type of loss to another; for example, someone asked me which was worse, my divorce or being widowed, and I have to wonder why it matters to the person who asked.
  • A journal marketed to widows invited me to rate how well I am coping with my husband’s death and identify areas for “improvement.” I responded by throwing the journal across the room and cursing at it, which probably brings my coping score down significantly. The implication of rating my grief and identifying where I can improve is that I should strive to be a “better griever” today than I was yesterday—that there should be a steady upward trajectory in my coping skills.  

All of these impulses to measure grief assume at some level that grieving is a phase that will end and that if we do it well, we can get to the finish line faster. Even the grief contest question about whether a divorce or being widowed is worse hinges on this logic—if being widowed is worse, then we can figure it will take longer to get to the finish line for being widowed than for being divorced.

While I find all of these impulses to measure grief problematic, I don’t fault the individuals I’ve alluded to here. I am sure that before my husband died, I compared griefs and tried to measure grief, despite having lost my mother, several good friends and colleagues, and beloved pets. Experiencing grief doesn’t necessarily equip us to resist the neoliberal air we breathe. When something feels common sensical, we do it without thinking, and until my husband died, I responded to grief in others without thinking.

I’ll talk in a later post about the intersections of disabilities studies and grief I am finding; for now, I’ll simply note that all of the “measuring grief” comments I’ve heard echo “measuring disability” comments I’ve heard. I’ve been complimented for handling my vision impairments well, I’ve been asked do I think losing my hearing would be more or less difficult than losing my vision, and I’ve been asked to score my vision impairment coping. Whether it’s focused on disability or grief, this urge to measure and assess rests on a foundation of ableist assumptions about what’s “normal.” For example, the question about which disability or grief is worse suggests that “normal” is no disability or grief and that some forms of disability or grief are closer or further from “normal.”

My experience of the grief I’ve felt in the month since my husband died is that how it goes one day is no indication of how it will go the next. Things I can handle one day are not necessarily things I can handle the next day. Scoring myself on how I handle things or aiming to handle things better today than I did yesterday does not feel useful or helpful in any way. What does feel useful or helpful is simply allowing my grief to unfold in whatever way it needs to on a particular day. That means I spent more time in bed yesterday and the day before than I did on any day last week. It also means thinking about grieving not as a phase I am going through but as a part of my life moving forward. There is no finish line, just a long winding path into the distance.

Company/Organizational Policies and Not Being a Jerk

When I became Writing Center Director in 2008, I was amazed by the high number of “no shows” – that is, students who didn’t show up for their appointments. I worked with the staff to put some practices into place, such as calling students to remind them of their appointments the day before, to reduce the no show rate, and while we were able to bring the rate down, our no show rate remained in the double digits. A few years later, when we adopted an online appointment system, we implemented the pre-loaded script that automatically blocked anyone from making an appointment after three no shows. That had no noticeable effect on our no show rate, either, but it made me feel like I was “doing something.”

A couple years ago, I decided to try a new tactic. Instead of blocking people who have three no shows, I set up our system to send an email to anyone who was a no show that basically says, “Hey, we noticed you missed an appointment. Everything ok?” No stern reminders of our three-no-shows-and-you’re-out policy, no guilt trips. Our no show rate remains unchanged, but now I regularly get emails from students who missed an appointment thanking me for checking in and sometimes giving me a glimpse into the complicated lives they lead that caused them to miss an appointment: childcare fell through, they were up late because of a chronic health condition and overslept, they got called into work unexpectedly, their car got stolen, their doctor changed their medication and adjusting to it has made life more difficult. Sometimes the information they give me provides an opportunity for me to refer them to offices on campus that can help; sometimes all I can do is convey my sympathy for their situation.

Here’s the takeaway: I can be a jerk and block them from making future appointments or I can be compassionate and connect with them as a human, but the no show rate will likely remain the same. I prefer to be compassionate and connect as a human. There is no benefit to the Writing Center, me, or the student if I block a student trying to adjust to a new medication from making appointments.

Earlier this week, the company that we rented my husband’s CPAP machine from came to the house to collect his CPAP machine. They did not know he had passed away—all they knew is that the usage data being communicated to them by the machine indicated my husband hadn’t used the machine at all in a few weeks. According to our rental agreement, that is “noncompliance” and after three weeks of noncompliance, we are obligated to return the machine.

So, on Tuesday morning, while I was in a meeting, I got an email saying someone was on their way to the house to get the machine. Twelve minutes later, sure enough, someone knocked on the door and demanded the machine. Because I was in a meeting and not checking my email, my daughter answered the door, assumed I had been expecting the machine pick-up and handed over the machine along with some other items she mistakenly thought went with it. It wasn’t until after my meeting, when I saw the email and read the “receipt” they later emailed that I realized what had happened.

The receipt said “patient not compliant, we need our equipment back.” The receipt also indicated that my husband was “not home” at the time.

This is a great example of enforcing a policy like a jerk, just as I was doing in the Writing Center when I blocked students who were no shows from making future appointments. I’m guessing the company’s noncompliance rate is like the Writing Center’s no show rate: fairly stable whether the company acts like a jerk or shows some compassion and connects with patients on a human level.

Do you have policies you implement like a jerk in your classroom, department, or workplace? Can you imagine ways to replace being a jerk with showing compassion and connecting on a human level?

**The CPAP company, if you’re interested, is AdaptHealth and they have not acknowledged my messages about how they handled the CPAP machine retrieval.