Placing myself in others’ shoes always came rather easy, and imagining the grief that came with death was no different. I saw friends and others around me suffer through symptoms — depression, changed eating habits, sleepless nights, tears — I tried to empathize with it all. Seeing the heartbreak on friends’ faces as they told me about their passed loved one, I attempted to place myself in their shoes. It was never difficult to fully grasp the pain they were going through; I came to realize grief is to an extent incommunicable. Death itself felt so distant, as if it was a far off reality that I myself would never have to deal with. This was until I woke up one morning with the worst news of my life: My grandmother had passed.
The woman who lived with me nearly my entire life, who held my hand through the good times and the bad, was gone. It was not unexpected; she had been sick all summer and I spent most days going back and forth to her nursing home, holding her hand as I knew that at any moment she could leave. It was a painstaking ordeal: watching via social media the breathtaking summers everyone was having, as I sat back at home waiting for a phone call. Many of my peers turned to a common talking point: “But wasn’t it helpful you knew this was coming?” No, it wasn’t. Nothing could have prepared me for the sorrowful days to follow.
As I gathered the little energy within me, I realized that I needed to email my professors. My messages were cold and low-spirited. What could one say in an email about this situation? Nearly everyone I emailed, texted and called offered their condolences. The typical “I can’t imagine how you must feel, how are you holding up?” made its way into every conversation. Losing my grandmother made it clear to me how little people empathize with death, especially when the deceased is not an immediate family member.
The Western world reacts fairly coldly to death. Death is feared and seldom discussed in the U.S., leaving people unsure how to deal with it. The condolences and support people offer feel false, as many of us were never taught how to do so properly. As a result, we avoid talking about death, simply expecting grief-stricken individuals to enter back into their routines whether they are ready or not. Universities, places of work and other institutions need to realize how difficult it is to grieve a death when the process is rushed. The current system can lead to complications like panic attacks, trouble sleeping and depression.
My head was foggy and spinning out of control. This woeful despair that others had referred to was miserable. While dealing with this exceedingly dreadful circumstance, I realized that life kept moving. Although I was offered condolences and time to process my grief, it was not enough. Most people stopped checking in or moved on to other topics. Having to answer texts about interpersonal drama and show up to class with a smile left me feeling unsupported and unseen. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I could ask for more concern? Maybe more time off? I went down a rabbit hole searching for a way to take the time I needed to heal and grieve. But it led me nowhere.
“The Fair Labor Standards Act, the foundation of U.S. labor policy, does not require employers to provide paid leave, including vacation time, time to convalesce, or time to plan or attend a funeral,” Broughton wrote.
In my case, professors ranged from apologetic to entirely unconcerned, typically granting one to two days away from class, but how could I blame them when their employer, the University of Michigan, doesn’t treat them any better? The University provides only three paid days off when faculty have lost an immediate family member, leaving staff and students alike without the ability to process their grief.
More time needs to be given for people to grieve properly. Universities and places of work should implement lessons on how to treat people who have suffered a loss. Similar to how U-M students take a module on sexual assault, we should be trained what to do when someone passes; not only for the benefit of others, but for ourselves. I continue to feel lost, bewildered and confused. Sooner or later, everyone experiences this, so we all have a collective interest in gaining a better understanding of grief and death.
We need to be more open about death. Running from our feelings only makes them worse.
There needs to be protections for time off after a loss; Western society cannot be enlightened and humane if we do not even allow ourselves and others to experience emotions fully and truly.
Brina E. Golubovic is an Opinion Columnist who writes about culture, campus affairs and American politics from a leftist perspective. When she isn’t rambling about politics or socioeconomic issues, she can be found at a local coffee shop. She can be reached at email@example.com.