My mental health leave in April and May 2022 was a time to come up for air. I spent a large part of that time learning to calm my body, become attuned to my needs, enjoy my own company, and gather renewed energy with enhanced focus and new wisdom.
I also spent a lot of time reflecting. I experienced major life changes in 2019. Relationships with my birth family came to an end, making my identities as a daughter, sister, niece, and cousin past tense. I also left a job in instructional consulting, a function I had performed for 18 years at two different institutions. My identity as a member of the educational developer profession shifted dramatically. I had just started working a new job in academic administration and was learning a new mission, work culture, and task set.
I had convinced myself to keep working at full capacity through all these major transitions. Then came the pandemic. With remote work and remote schooling from 2020-2022, I still hadn’t processed these major shifts in my identity nor integrated into my self-concept who I had been and who I was now.
Grief is part of change, change is part of life
I needed to finally encounter multiple forms of grief: delayed, unresolved, disenfranchised, traumatic, and compounded. I’ve never before learned to work with and through grief. I’ve never been to a funeral of a relative. I’ve never talked about how I felt about the loss of a pet. I have never experienced socially sanctioned, openly acknowledged sadness, engaged in public mourning, or honored disrupted relationships. I’ve never talked with someone close about the emotions, memories, thoughts, and experiences I had about important relatives who passed.
As part of my own therapeutic work during my leave, I read David Kessler’s book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief (2019) and Elizabeth Lesser’s book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help us Grow (2004). Being purposeful about grief means:
- To document a history of what was;
- To give voice to what was important to me;
- To celebrate what was and acknowledge regrets and disappointments in what wasn’t and won’t be;
- To allow the ambivalent feelings and learn ways of coping with loss and sadness;
- To find meaning and purpose in the experience and the grief; and
- To give certainty and reality to an end and to put that relationship properly in the past.
Grief reflects our feelings about change, a change in a relationship, expectations, routines, identities (roles, values, priorities, responsibilities). It’s the sadness we have in letting go of something that was or will never be and the uncertainty we feel in accepting something that is and that we will grow into. “Change requires embracing the paradox that the changes must coexist with a certain level of stability. While letting go of the things that need to be changed, the core values must be kept intact. This paradox reflects the very human need for growth with the equally important need for security.” (https://a-new-way-to-work.com/2015/03/09/the-paradox-of-change-and-stability/)
I decided to write a eulogy for the significant relationships that I have lost since 2019. I don’t intend to share the eulogies publicly, but while I wrote them I did imagine reading them in public someday. I shared some of these stories with close friends who have been walking with me on our mental health journeys.
Some of those losses are people. Some of these losses are roles, functions, and identities I had. Some of these losses are dreams and wishes that have passed by. I’m sharing here a template that has helped me be a compassionate witness to the relationship, recognize the losses, develop meaning and deeper understandings, and give gratitude for what mattered in my dark woods moments.
Document the history, including common knowledge at different stages that can be confirmed as well as shareable private knowledge that reveals something unique and special.
Special and distinguishing characteristics
- Tell stories
- Talk about goals and ambitions
- Give examples of hope, faith and commitment
- Discuss achievements, talents, interests, and passions
This is a hard part, and we have a cultural tendency to skip this part (“If you can’t say anything nice…”). This shadow side of a relationship reveals my commitments to things I want to have in that relationship. In naming my disappointments as a compassionate witness, I am compelled to give grace and recognize the limited capabilities of each of us. It asks me to be humble and reflect on whether I could have met those expectations myself. At the same time, these disappointments can reveal my inability to see the magnificence of what was there all along. Other prompts that have been helpful to me here:
- Should haves
- Competing desires
- False hopes
- Unfilled dreams
- Why is it significant and important?
- How are they a part of me and how am I a part of them?
- How is a story about them more than just a sequence of events?
- How have they revealed new truths, expanded my capacity, enabled growth of myself or the relationship?
- What major contributions did they have?
- What wisdom did they share? What am I grateful for? What lessons have I gained about the world and myself in it?
I realize that this post is its own eulogy for the gift of two months of mental health leave for quiet reflection. Through several previous posts, I’ve shared facts about my leave of absence, recounted a couple meaningful stories, shared a couple struggles and tensions, and publicly reflected on my wisdom gained. I’m both grateful for that time and the memories I have as well as sad that it is over. I’m particularly grateful for the relationships that have been strengthened by sharing my grief with others who knew how to sit with me in it.
We have concrete losses in the COVID-related deaths of loved ones. We also have abstract losses in changed timelines, shifted priorities, canceled plans, and lost innocence, trust, or hope. I’ve written before about grief and distress among graduate students, especially in relation to the pandemic. Graduate students face specific kinds of losses, disappointments, and developmental becoming/letting go in relation to their academic training. By taking care of their grief, graduate students honor their younger, previous selves, and welcome their wiser, more capable self.