Canadians know that February is, most years, the cruelest month. The snow that was pretty is now pretty dirty, road-salted and ice-encrusted; the groundhog never emerges, let alone sees shadows; and March only brings more wintry blasts. So it has been this year, here in Southern Ontario; and so it has been for me.
Regular readers will have noticed that it’s been a month since my last post (which, incidentally, I also began by harping on winter). The accidental hiatus has been the result of some significant shifts in my personal life. My mother, who is suffering from dementia as well as very serious problems with mobility, has been in hospital for the past 15 days: first recovering from surgery, and now awaiting a permanent bed in a long-term care facility. My father and I have been working together to ensure she is not too lonely, while also attending to our own feelings of anxiety, fear, and sorrow. And on the other side of the ocean, another extremely important family relationship has changed for me, and left me grieving.
(This beautiful image by Amos Chapple can be found, among others, here.)
Why am I sharing all of this with you, many of you strangers? Does not this kind of thing qualify as TMI (too much info)? Perhaps. But I’ve always been an over-sharer (I’ve also always been a drama queen). And truth be told, I’ve lately learned that the price of not sharing – of not reaching out when in need – is far too high to pay when you’re already hurting.
Not too long ago a cherished friend of mine received some personal news that was extremely difficult to bear. Hurting, frightened, and knowing she needed support, she reached out to a group of us who have been friends, colleagues, and family since graduate school. She explained what had happened as clearly as she could, and then she said just as clearly what she needed: our support, spiritual and material, as she struggled to come to terms with the life-changing news she had received. I reached out to her immediately in love and friendship, but I was also struck profoundly by the nature of her message to us. Rather than suffering in silence, or relying only on close family to bear the burden she had been handed, she anticipated what she was going to need in the weeks and months ahead and asked it frankly, directly of us – of those of us she knew she could trust to hold her in her grief. Put plainly, she was forward planning: she reached out to us in order to set up a network of care to help her navigate as normally as possible the rough road ahead.
My friend’s example stayed with me, and when I returned from a journey to England last week I took it as my model. Coming home to bitter, extreme cold, heavy, relentless snow and the looming exhaustion of the end of term, I wrote messages to groups of friends and colleagues letting them know what was happening in my world. Like my dear friend, I asked for help and support. I stated as plainly as I could what I might need; I asked that people reach out to me even when I didn’t think to reach out again myself. The outpouring was immense: everyone I contacted returned my message with loving kindness and plenty of invitations, from walks to dinners to coffees to acrobatics classes. Friends told me I was loved. Loved ones told me they were there. I felt supported and strengthened.
I managed to go back to work, and to get on with work pretty well.
Those of us who have grown up in Christian cultures know that suffering in silence is as often lauded as chastised; many of us, even those who don’t identify as faithful, so easily default to the “TMI” mode of grieving and seek to bear our burdens alone, as much out of habit as out of fear of shame. But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, shameful about asking for help in times of grief and loss. And more: there is absolutely nothing shameful about asking for help in anticipation of the grief and loss we know is coming. My clever friend imagined in her grief that she might yet reach a nadir; she told us all so that we could be there to help her survive, and then thrive once again, because she knew that’s what we would want.
That kind of planning is no less important than planning for our next due dates, our next sabbaticals, our next conference obligations, our next lectures. In fact, it’s much more important than all of these combined.
We need to remind one another, and regularly, of the importance of planning for life’s hurts, and of reaching out to all of those willing to support us in our grief. And we need to remind our students of this, too.