Normalizing Grief: We Can Be Doing More
The majority of the Packer community has sadly experienced, or will experience at some point, the death of a loved one; forcing them to go through the incredibly heartbreaking process of coping with loss. The topic of grief is normal, common, and relevant to every single one of the members in our community—so why do we avoid talking about it?
I lost my mother to cancer when I was a very young age, and grief has been a part of my life ever since her death. Although she passed away almost 12 years ago, I am constantly thinking about her and I always miss her—but I have found that not many people are willing to talk to me about her death. One of the biggest misconceptions about the process of grieving is that those experiencing loss want to be left alone, or that we do not want to speak about the ones we have lost. Facing the death of a loved one is an experience that makes you feel incredibly isolated and vulnerable, and the last thing that people in mourning need is to be left alone.
Larissa Dzegar, sophomore grade dean, has been making an effort to push the topic of grief into the forefront of Packer’s conversations since early this year, when she lost her father.
“I think it’s important to start normalizing grief, death, and loss,” Ms. Dzegar said. “I felt very isolated and [still] feel very isolated at times, having lost my father this year, and I don’t think it has to be that way.”
The reason that people in our community are often hesitant to discuss death is because it can make those who have not experienced a comparable loss uncomfortable. Since death is such a sensitive subject, those people might be afraid they will say something insensitive, or somehow make the situation worse. It’s hard to be supportive when you can’t empathize with the person needing support, since you can’t be sure of what they need.
Because of the resistance that many people express toward talking about this topic, many people who have experienced loss have expressed interest in creating a space where those handling the death of a loved one can discuss their grief with others that have similar experiences. I, along with several other students who have dealt with the death of a parent, attend Family Composition, an affinity club for students who identify as having unconventional family situations. Family Composition is a great, supportive environment, and has been helpful in dealing with my grief to a certain extent. However, the vast majority of members who attend the meetings come because of divorced parents, so I have found that the meetings are often centered around those particular issues, instead of focusing on the minority of us who attend because of loss and death.
Making a space for only those who have personally experienced loss in their life is not all we can be doing. The entire Packer community needs to shift how we look at, and how we react to grief. Although Packer has done a really great job in supporting the members of our community that are experiencing loss, this support should not falter after it is deemed that the person has reached a place of “acceptance.” I do not believe that the process of grieving can be summed up in ‘The 5 Stages of Grief,’ or that one can ever fully accept the death of a loved one. Even though it has been nearly 12 years since my mom died, I have not reached a place of acceptance—my perspective on her death continues to change as I grow, but the grief I hold has never fully gone away. Those who have dealt with death should be able to feel justified for bringing up the topic of loss, and to mourn those we have lost no matter how long ago the death occurred.
Delia Barnett (‘20), who lost her father when she was in Packer’s Lower School, spoke about her experience sharing her grief with the Packer community, “Since it’s been so long since my dad died, there have been a lot of times where I’ve felt like my grief hasn’t really been valid or warranted, when it’s something that doesn’t ever go away. A lot of times I won’t talk about grief when it comes up because I don’t want to be perceived in a certain way.”
Despite how difficult it can be to hear someone speak about their experience with death, it’s important that we understand that it is far harder for a person grieving to share their experience with death than it is for the one listening. The feeling of grief is one of the most painful, exhausting, and complex phenomenons that I have ever endured, and I have found that it is incredibly difficult to engage in a community while coping with that grief—let alone to feel like you have to pretend that your grief isn’t there.
Ms. Dzegar accurately described the experience of loss when she said, “It’s like a hole in my mid-section, and I have to function in the world pretending that it’s not there. I think about my dad all the time. I miss him, and I talk to him, and it’s really hard to pretend that I don’t think about him all the time. I don’t think that hole goes away; you just learn how to live around it and walk around the world with it.”
The overarching problem that Packer struggles with when dealing with grief, is how we often avoid and ignore the issues present in our community that we cannot directly relate to. I’ve seen this dynamic in almost every conversation concerning a minority group at Packer—if the issue isn’t affecting us personally, we won’t show up. It’s time that we put a stop to this harmful cycle, and begin to participate in discussions about issues that affect our community, even if they make us uncomfortable.
The next time you encounter someone coping with loss, I hope you’ll do your best to empathize with them and be there for them through their pain, whether that means asking them about the one they’ve lost, celebrating their lost one’s birthday with them, or even just being a shoulder to cry on, your support matters.