Transylvania professor Paden on grief in these times

This article by professor Jeremy Paden is part of a series by the Transylvania community on the theme of our academic year: Resilience. As we face the biggest public health crisis in a generation, we’re digging deep to find what it takes to bounce back, to face adversity with both grit and kindness.

As a college professor at a residential school, I am grieving. I imagine that many of my colleagues are as well. Just as I also imagine countless elementary and secondary teachers across the nation are. We miss our students. We miss the community of learners of which we formed a part.

As teachers we came into this profession for a host of reasons — love of the subject, love of children or teenagers or young adults, love of playing a small part in the process of human formation, love of knowledge and of walking beside people as they come into knowledge, love of learning from our students, love of community and the belief that the best kind of learning happens in and through community.

Yet, the community part of this has been radically altered by abruptly moving to remote instruction. Phone, email and videoconferencing are not the same as face-to-face interaction — not only is this form of instruction twice as slow, it takes twice the amount of preparation.

My children are also grieving the loss of their community of teachers and peers, and, from what I gather, so are my students. There are the first-year students who, though maybe ready to have gone home and see their parents, still had a few more months of life on their own, a few more runs to the all-night burger joint. There are the sophomores and juniors who were lining up internships and jobs. There are the seniors who in January were kind of ready to leave, and, once they found out their postgrad placement or had their job offer, were at the very least ready to be done with classes. Yet, they still expected, even wanted, the chance to have one more conversation with this or that professor, to have one more late-night heart-to-heart with a friend while eating Goodfellas Pizza on the steps of Old Morrison; they were looking forward to one more social function and to the celebratory goodbye that is Senior Week and graduation. And all that got taken away, rather unexpectedly.

There is a rhythm to our year that we understand, a set of emotions that we cycle through as we move from September to May, and by the time we are in college, this rhythm is deeply ingrained. It helps us make sense of the changes. It helps us get ready for life and what lies ahead. It tells us, this is something you have accomplished, and these are things you’ve learned. And for the faculty and staff of the college, getting to celebrate at the end of the year and send our charges on to their next stage is deeply meaningful and joyous.

But now we are all at home, trying to concentrate on school work. However, I have found myself easily distracted over this last week and a half of remote instruction.

I think it’s because of grief. The grief I feel is large and multilayered. I grieve the loss of my students. I miss the conversations we have in and out of class. I grieve the loss of my colleagues and that community of bright, caring and quirky humans. And while this is a loss that I feel and feel deeply, there is another greater loss that amplifies my distractedness. It’s the death and sickness and pain that is all around us. The more than 13,000 dead in Italy, the more than 10,000 dead in Spain, the more than 5,000 dead in the United States, the more than 3,000 dead in China … the fact that the death toll has just begun.

I grieve, also, the job loss that we are currently seeing and will continue to see.

I grieve that as a nation we don’t seem to have any clear vision or leadership.

I grieve the fact that those ways in which I know how to offer comfort — going and sitting with someone, taking someone a meal, singing with a group of people, hugging a friend — are taken from us.

What life will look like after these dark days, who knows? Hard, hard days lie ahead.

I heard on the radio a chaplain being interviewed, and the host asked the chaplain what words of comfort they might offer as a person of faith. While I understand this desire, I think of the book of Lamentations, of Job; I think of the Psalms of lament and of my namesake Jeremiah, and I wonder, is not grieving over all this loss part of what we should do? Grief and faith are not antonyms. And to the extent that grief might move us to empathy and then to acts of kindness and compassion, might grief not be a handmaiden to the kind of hope we need, a hope that works to change the world?

Still, that hope will not change the fact that loss, and death and economic hardship will be with us, will define us for a while. This is not the lesson any of us signed up to learn this year, and certainly not in this way. Yet, this is one of the lessons that runs through life. That life, as joyous and glorious as it can be at times, is shot through with loss. That wonder and sorrow, that hope and grief can visit us at the same time. And not only this, that death and life are inextricably bound. The time for putting the lessons of this season into words will come. Right now, it still feels to me that I still need to sit with my grief. That, yes, I need to reach out to those whom I love and those whom I know to need a word of comfort, or food or what help I can offer. But right now what I feel is grief and sorrow.

Lamentations 5:1-5

Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; behold, and see our disgrace!
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to aliens.
We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows.
We must pay for the water we drink, the wood we get must be bought.
With a yoke on our necks we are hard driven; we are weary, we are given no rest.


About the author: Jeremy Paden is a Spanish professor and Affrilachian poet. His poems and translations have appeared in the Adirondack Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Drunken Boat and Louisville Review to name a few. He is a recipient of the Al Smith Individual Artist Award.