Magical thinking

The topic for that class’s session was Loss, Death, and Dying. Pretty heavy for the second session, I remember worrying. I wanted to not just talk about dry theories and research (Kubler Ross’s “stages” of grief, research on palliative care, on grief at different developmental stages) but to be able to talk about real issues and experiences. These are social workers in training, after all. I prepared a few extras to generate conversation, illustrate the concepts and provide a bit of variety to the class.

Scenes from Away From Her. And Ponette (a gem).
And, also, audio clips from StoryCorps. Here and here.

{I’m a crier. If my heart is at all cracked open, the tears flow. Truthfully, at home I kept crying during those scenes and so I had to watch them over and over so I got used to them enough to maintain my composure in class.}

It went well, better than I expected. As I played the clips--narratives of real people talking about their experiences with death--one of my students, just inside my line of sight to the left, started weeping quietly. She searched her pockets for tissues and dabbed at her face for several minutes. At the end she left class before I could catch her so I emailed her to make sure she was okay and that the class hadn’t brought up some painful experiences or memories.

“Thank you for checking in” she wrote back. “I am okay :) but I was definitely struggling to balance my emotional mind and rational mind! Those were wonderful clips and I am glad you exposed us to them--thank you; it must be a difficult subject to have to teach, as well.”
As a fellow crier, I have had a soft spot E ever since. In a room full of wonderful and inspiring students, she is a favorite. We chat now and then, before or after class. But I am her professor and we are not really friends.

I received an email from her last week during break. “I just wanted to let you know I’m going through a difficult time right now. After our recent break-up, my boyfriend of three years has gone missing. We’re all worried and desperate to find him.”

And then, on the weekend, an email from her roommate. They found his body. He took his own life. E is, of course, devastated.  But she plans to continue the semester and attend her classes.

And so I cannot stop thinking about her. Can I even imagine what she must be going through? My mothering instincts outpace my professorish professionalism. I want to hug her. To slip a handkerchief into her hand inscribed with “it will eventually feel better.” Mostly, I want to go back to the second session and prepare her for the looming tragedy, to whisper soothing and protective words. To find some secret formula to ward off this kind of pain. 

I know, I'm not in that kind of role in her life. But I'm too new at this to have that fact even matter.  All those theories and research suddenly feel too paltry.

Ah, life.  Sometimes I don't know what to do with you.