ON GRIEVING PART I

"I'M NOT GOING TO MONTREAL"

WORDS & IMAGE: MAY TREUHAFT-ALI '17

I.

On the morning of Tuesday February 11, 2014, I woke up and did homework in bed. I had a psych quiz that afternoon and was trying to catch up on the readings I’d skipped. I remember the playlist I listened to and the skirt I was wearing. I went to my sociology class, then to Usdan lunch with friends. As I was getting up to go, I got a text from my mom: “I’m at Wesleyan. Where can I find you?” When I saw this text I laughed. I was charmed that she was paying me a surprise visit. I called her, asking if I could meet her after my quiz. And she said, “Just come.”

Her car was waiting outside Usdan. I got into the back seat. She didn’t say anything, she just drove me into Middletown. She parked behind a store with the letters “RAC” in blue. I still recognize this store on the way to Athenian Diner. She got into the back seat, put her arms around me and told me that my dad had suddenly died.

One of the clearest memories I have of what happened next is standing between Usdan and North College, when I returned to campus to pack my things. I remember thinking with absolute certainty: I am in a different Wesleyan. This is not the same place I was in an hour ago.

These are a few of my reflections on grieving and being at Wesleyan at the same time.

II.

Grieving is gendered. Every single grieving person I have met on this campus is a woman. I assume there are grieving men out there, but I don’t know where they are all hiding. I can only speculate that it has a lot to do with the fact that displaying emotion is associated with femininity and vulnerability. In literature and mythology, there are countless female characters whose storylines revolve around mourning, but few men so overcome with grief. 

Grief ebbs and flows within me like waves, and sometimes it builds up to the point of a tidal wave. In its most concentrated form, this is what a tidal wave feels like: my breathing becomes shallow. My chest and throat clench. Throbs of pain run through my head. I feel like I physically cannot think or move or speak, or else something terrible will happen. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I pull my own hair or stick myself in the forearm with pins. These tidal waves hit me at parties, in class, when I’m hanging out with friends, or out of the blue. If you interact with me on a fairly regular basis, chances are I’ve had one in your presence and did not tell you. Tidal waves are irrational, desperate and hysterical, the triumvirate every woman fears being associated with. I identify with Ophelia for the very reasons that every good feminist hates her. To be the triumvirate is to embody an especially repugnant and shameful type of feminine weakness.

I surround myself with communities who, in theory, exist to create empathy between people with different life experiences; however, a blind spot exists when it comes to grief. The women who talk to me about taking women’s pain seriously as an act of feminism are the same women who look at me like I’m a ticking timebomb about to go off, ignore me when I’m upset, or treat my sadness like a burden on our friendship. They tell me it’s okay to reject the fun-girl persona, meaning it’s acceptable to choose to stay in and drink wine and knit on a Saturday night; but when being a not-fun-girl means sitting alone in my room for hours crying, they don’t want to hear about it and they sure don’t want to be the person I call for help. The theater community constantly encourages me to let down my guard and overcome my inhibitions, but only in the narrowest sense. I have gone streaking or platonically made out with plenty of theater kids at no emotional risk, but I would never tell them when I was in pain. Theatermaking and feminism are central parts of my identity, but the flippancy with which these circles have treated my grieving process has made me question whether I belong in either. 

Well-meaning people frequently congratulate me on being “strong.” I find this word absurd and almost comical because it couldn’t be further from the truth. “Strong” is a gendered word, and leaves no room for irrational, desperate hysteria. When you tell me I’m strong, you are reaffirming what a year of ticking timebomb looks has taught me: that I will only survive on this campus if I make it as easy as possible for everyone to ignore my grief.

III.

At Passover, one of my cousins shared with me the best advice he’d gotten after his father died: “It’s going to be a long year. Cut yourself a lot of slack.” I later read statistics that mourners are more likely to forget or lose things, make absentminded errors, and have worse memory. I have made a million little fuckups this year. On top of this, grief affects your physical well-being. I have had colds, stomachaches and headaches for the majority of the year. I regularly wake up at 4 AM and can’t fall back asleep. Grief is more like an illness than an emotion in the way it incapacitates you and undermines your sense of safety on a daily basis.

It is difficult for me to cut myself slack and even harder to ask other people for slack. Like every college student, I gather a sense of self-worth from holding myself to a high standard of rigor and from other people depending on me. If I make mistakes, I feel like I don’t deserve the responsibilities I have. I especially feel undeserving as a member of Second Stage staff. I can’t say, “I forgot how to set up the risers because my dad died.” I feel like if I tried to, the response would be “Then you shouldn’t be on Staff right now” or “You shouldn’t have agreed to direct a show and be Managing Liaison.” This is partly because I know staffers are constantly scrutinized and criticized behind their backs by other staffers and the larger theater community. One time in November, I had gotten a tiramisu cake for staff and was ten minutes late to a staff meeting I was supposed to lead. When I walked in, I felt so anxious that I took one look around the room and dropped the cake. “Sorry guys, there’s a smashed cake on the floor because my dad died." 

Sometimes the kindest thing you can do for a grieving person is cut them slack for tiny mistakes. Just be patient and don’t make them feel like an incompetent idiot. Don’t make jokes at their expense. If they say or do something stupid, just let it slide.

When I say I want slack, I do not mean I want to be excused from confronting my flaws. Since my dad’s death, people are often reluctant to tell me when they have a serious problem with our friendship because they don’t want to open the Pandora’s box of my feelings. I think they are worried that I will say “How dare you find fault with me at a time like this.” But if you’re upset with me and you bottle it up, you’re almost definitely going to take it out on me in infinitely more toxic ways. You’re more likely to snap at me for little things, roll your eyes when I talk, or talk about me behind my back. An honest, open conversation is something I can do. It is healthy and constructive for both of us. But right now, I just don’t have the energy to deal with passive-aggression.

I’m not asking for special treatment. Ideally, we would cut everyone slack. If this year has taught me anything, it is to be kind and forgiving to strangers, because I never know who else might be grieving.

IV.

The Sunday that I got back from his funeral, I went to dinner with friends. They were discussing a road trip to Montreal that we had all planned on taking over spring break. I said, very simply, “I’m not going to Montreal.” The tense silence that followed was one of those silences that in reality probably lasted two seconds, but felt like hours. Then someone made an overly cheerful subject change and the conversation continued as normal.

That silence was the first time of many when I would feel intense guilt for making people aware not even of my feelings, but of the mere fact that I was mourning. Joan Didion writes in The Year of Magical Thinking about the moral obligation in our society to not detract from other people’s happiness. This resonates with me in that I feel like a burden and a bad friend whenever I can’t cover up my loss. I feel guilty asking for slack. I feel guilty for missing out on the college experience I once dreamed of. I feel guilty inviting friends to hang out in my room because they’ll see the framed photo of my dad. I often feel like I need to recompense or reward people just for tolerating my presence, even if they are not particularly supportive, because I know I’m not always “fun” to spend time with.

 I feel as guilty for living like a college student as I do for all the ways I can’t. I constantly feel guilty for wanting to drink, smoke weed, party and date, but I feel guilty for abstaining too. I had started rethinking my sexual orientation shortly before my dad died, but I feel guilty for focusing on parts of my identity that don’t have to do with him. When I try to discuss my sexuality with my progressive mother, she says, “It’s been a hard year,” implying that I’d be selfish to spring my changing identity on her at a time like this. On top of this, I feel guilty for all the ways in which I could have been a more loving daughter to my dad and wasn’t. When I haven’t thought about my dad in a couple of days, I worry that I’m forgetting him. I feel guilty when my mourning takes the form of self-pity rather than love for him. Self-loathing closes in on me from all sides.

This piece is called “I’m Not Going to Montreal” because I am drawing your attention to my grief. The difference is, this time I don’t feel guilty.

V.

Over winter break, I had dinner with a close friend from home. I told her that I felt alienated from everyone at Wesleyan, and that there was no one here I could safely confide in without running the risk of estrangement. She responded: “When people at Wesleyan look at you, they are forced to think about something they’d rather ignore, the fact that they could and probably will be in your position some day. That makes you dangerous.”

This is what I think she meant: We go to college to be in a bubble, away from the real world, to discover what we value as meaningful. In college we are invincible. We can try new things and take risks in relative safety. We can make a difference for the future. I am a living reminder that we are not invincible or safe. My values don’t seem to matter when I know my time to live is small, finite and insignificant. The future feels like a joke for me because the person I loved most in the world won’t be there to see it. Many pursuits that I once considered important now seem meaningless. I aged more in the past year than I did in the first eighteen of my life. I feel old, gray, exhausted and disillusioned. My brokenness drains the college experience of its meaningfulness, so any sign of my break is a threat to this way of life.

I don’t blame individuals for not being able to understand grief. Part of it is a question of age. Some of my most comforting relationships at Wesleyan are with professors and grad students. Even if they haven’t lost a close loved one, they are at an age where their friends have, and the possibility of death is not one they can ignore. I am also deeply grateful for the grieving students on this campus who have shown me kindness. Even when our conversations have nothing to do with loss, just being around people who get it lifts an enormous weight off my shoulders. If you are grieving right now and you don’t know me personally, please reach out to me. I have received so much generosity in the past year, and I’d like to pay it forward. 

I know my pain is not unique or more profound than anyone else’s. When friends vent to me, they often assume that I think their hardships are trivial compared to my own. I don’t. Pain is pain is pain is pain. If you are heartsick over your grades, your love life, or WeShop running out of your favorite snack, I will empathize with you. If you are happy, I won’t begrudge you of that. Happiness is a gift that you can’t take for granted or look down on. I do ask that, if I celebrate and commiserate with you, you don’t make me feel like a burden for asking the same of you. I know that it’s hard because listening to me forces you to contemplate the unimaginable possibility of losing an immediate family member, a hypothetical that is painful in itself, especially for people our age. But I have to carry the reality of my own mortality and my loved ones’ everywhere with me, so this seems like a relatively reasonable favor to ask.

At a Jewish funeral, mourners tear a black ribbon and pin it to their clothes as a physical manifestation of what is going on in their hearts. I recently started wearing my torn black ribbon around campus. I won’t bring it up with anyone who doesn’t ask, but I will explain what it means to anyone who does. You cannot ignore its presence, but you can choose whether or not to talk to me about it, and I will not judge you for making either choice. My black ribbon is not for your edification, but it is not endangering you either.

I don’t need you to say or do the perfect thing to comfort me. I have no idea what that would even be. This is what you can do: don’t pretend there’s nothing wrong with me, but don’t treat me like a ticking timebomb. Ask me how I’m doing and know I won’t give you a real answer. Reassure me when I shouldn’t have to feel guilty but do anyway. Don’t tense up when I talk about my dad. I told stories about him all the time when he was alive, and doing it now helps me remember how funny and brilliant he was. Let me gush about the books, plays, music and people that remind me why life matters.

During WesFest, my dad went on a campus tour (the Undies in Olin tour, to be exact). I remember waiting for him in the back seat of our family car. It was parked on High Street under a cherry blossom tree. He got in the car with a big smile on his face and the first thing he said was, “This place is perfect for you.” And on some level, I know he’s right.


The "On Grieving" series is written by Wesleyan students who have lost a loved one. These sister essays reflect various different accounts of the immediate grieving processes, as it happens at Wesleyan.

If you have lost a loved one and would like support, please reach out to the author (mtreuhaftali@wes). Come by Wesleyan's student-run grief support group, which meets on Tuesdays at 7:30 PM in the Davison Health Center Solariam.