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Columns, Opinions

Priyanka Podugu: What grief taught me about compassion

By
Guest Columnist
Thursday, May 28, 2020
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2020

A couple days before classes started last fall, I learned that my grandmother was dying. She was the oldest member of my family, but we did not expect such a rapid decline in her health. With one phone call, my family suddenly faced the daunting task of transplanting ourselves in under 24 hours from the United States to India, where we would say goodbye. I can barely recall packing for this last minute trip, nor can I really remember the journey I took from Providence to New York to board my flight. But, whenever I reflect on this intense moment in my life — the first time I experienced familial loss in recent memory — I always remember the generosity that people extended to my family and me with sharp clarity. 

My housemates who insisted that I text them once I reached my grandma; my friend who offered to drive me from Providence to New York after she watched me desperately search for affordable train tickets; the personnel who agreed to delay our flight’s takeoff time by 15 minutes as my family struggled to reach the airport; the people who stood aside in the excruciatingly long security line when they saw my family full of pain. These moments might look insignificantly small, or transient even, in the context of an event as heavy as my grandmother’s nearing death. But because my family faced a crisis where literally every second mattered, these acts of compassion and care helped us feel less alone in our grief. 

Right now, a high demand exists for the generosity and compassion that my family and I received during our time of need. The United States continues to move through an unprecedented economic and public health crisis that has forcefully exposed a national failure to safeguard the health and livelihoods of the most vulnerable among us. With over 100,000 dead, my home has suffered more casualties from the coronavirus than any other country in the world. Over 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the onset of the pandemic, and social distancing measures have disproportionately burdened low-income, non-white communities with the task of exposing themselves to the virus for their “essential work.” In a survey conducted by the University of Chicago and after the beginning of widespread social distancing, nearly two-thirds of Americans reported feeling “nervous, depressed, lonely or hopeless” over the course of just one week. Ideally, every person should be guaranteed to receive the same support and care that my family felt when we needed those two things the most, but reality suggests otherwise. 

College graduates everywhere understand that graduating in a pandemic means facing discouraging and unexpected challenges both in their careers and personal lives. For many members of my class, graduation now marks the assumption of a serious responsibility not just to provide for themselves, but for their families as well. Others must navigate the emotional gymnastics of celebrating a personal accomplishment while still grieving the absence of loved ones and family members. With everything in such free fall, the act of leaving behind the security and stability of college feels especially unfair.

We have been so profoundly lucky to be members of a community like Brown, where compassionate care defines student culture. During my four years on campus, I’ve seen this kind of care emerge in so many different ways. It’s appeared every time my friends pulled and humored me through my feelings of grief or failure. It was there every time students gathered on the Main Green, always in advocacy of their peers and for a better university. After our campus shut down, our commitment to care remained, as we pooled resources across Facebook pages and online groups to ensure that no student felt left behind. We proved that distance could not preclude us from comforting or reassuring each other in the middle of a crisis. 

Even with my new college degree, I feel grossly ill-equipped to predict what will happen over the next few months. We are undeniably leaving Brown at a difficult time. But regardless of the future’s uncertainty, to thrive in the present, historic circumstances, we must find ways to continue supporting ourselves and each other with compassion and generosity.

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