Midway through my study abroad experience in Paris, I was sitting in my European-sized single when I got a text from my dad at midnight. “Don’t panic, but call your mom.” I called my mom, who was in pieces. After a fall, my 86-year-old maternal grandmother was unconscious in the hospital. My parents wouldn’t say it at first, but we all knew that she wouldn’t wake up. Two days later, on Friday, March 3, my mother soberly told me that my grandmother wasn’t going to make it. It was just a matter of days. I dropped everything and flew from Paris to Houston for a week of emotional limbo. There was nothing but my Teta’s floating spirit to occupy our lives. That week was hell, but it was cathartic and important.
Once the week was over, I flew back to Paris. I started a virtual internship, caught up on my week of missed classwork, readjusted to the time zone and continued as if that week never happened. I worked, studied and took weekend trips for which I had neither the time nor the money. I wandered aimlessly around Paris hoping to be zapped by artistic inspiration. But there was a piece missing. No matter how hard I worked, I was distracted and slowed down. No matter how much I traveled, I was always a little more tired than I wanted to admit. In moving on with my normal life so quickly that I prolonged my own grief and made my pain deeper. However, sadly but truly, there was no other option. Whether in France or in the U.S., supervisors, professors, hiring managers and even friends only afforded me a week to bandage my trauma. Grief can be an intense, long-term and active process, and we should all — especially the grieving — view it as such.
In “A Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion captures this beautifully: “Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” That happened to me. However, because I wasn’t afforded the time and space to heal from this loss, I didn’t think I deserved it. But why not? And why did that healing have to happen now? These waves of grief invaded me at random and unwelcome intervals while I tried to bury myself in work and find any possible way to salvage my study abroad experience. Of course, they only worsened when my paternal grandmother passed away during the last week of the semester. I left Paris behind, went home for her funeral (wearing the same black dress as in March) and then found myself alone again and away from my parents, all within five days. It almost seemed like part of a gruesome routine.
Several months after my grandmothers’ deaths, I find myself in a new normalcy where my life is calmer, but I expect the calm to be upended by moments of sadness. This is especially the case because I had no time to process either of their deaths. I am not alone in that. Leaving grief unresolved by not taking ample time to heal can lead to more pain and frustration in the long run. Further, because of the severity of the daily effects of long-term grief, the DSM-5 (“psychiatry’s bible”) has even started listing prolonged grief as a mental health disorder. Though this diagnosis remains controversial among psychiatrists, its inclusion shows the magnitude and complexity of what it means to grieve.
Despite the growing knowledge surrounding the medical phenomenon of prolonged grief, there is currently no federal policy in place to guarantee bereavement leave for employees. As a result, most grieving close family members (spouses, parents, children and grandchildren) receive just three days of bereavement leave — paid or unpaid — from their place of work. This barely leaves enough time for grieving family members to plan a funeral service, much less to endure the life-altering experience of losing a loved one. My own parents lost their mothers less than two months apart. Both times, they each went back to work three days later — not because they thought they could, but because they wanted to keep their jobs. Some employees, including my mother, even have to apply for bereavement leave and hope that it is approved by their payroll departments.
The current workplace infrastructure for grief isn’t sustainable, so we should at least try to support those around us who are experiencing long-term grief. A study from the National Institutes of Health has found that social support is especially important in traumatic grief. While many friends asked me how I was doing in the wake of my grandmothers’ deaths, these interactions were often one-off occurrences. Grief is unpredictable both in its acuity and its duration, so it’s important to check in periodically with those who are grieving. Letting someone know that they are not alone in their daily struggle can make all the difference.
Two and a half years into the pandemic, acknowledging the reality of long-term grief is more important than ever. Those who lost loved ones from COVID may be at a higher risk for prolonged grief. Considering the amount of people that COVID has affected, it is ludicrous for workplaces to offer — in the best cases — three days of bereavement leave and then expect business as usual.
Perhaps more importantly, no one should be expected to grieve in isolation. On campus, we have resources such as Counseling and Psychological Services and the weekly Bereavement Group at the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life to help us cope with loss. Nevertheless, it is still incumbent on us as a student body to be there for our friends and classmates who are experiencing grief. Since many of us live far away from our loved ones, shouldering a loss can be as lonely and isolating on College Hill as it was in my room in Paris. My school and work didn’t give me nearly enough time to put myself back together again, but the shared humanity of community — my family and my closest friends — got me through it. Community can be what gets someone else through it, too.
Yasmeen Gaber ’23 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.