Grief Part 2: I Couldn’t Care More

Apr 5, 2021

Photo by Christiana Rivers on Unsplash

By Dr. Valentina Iturbe-LaGrave and Dr. Travis Heath

I don’t write this blog post as the University’s Director of Inclusive Teaching Practices or as a researcher devoted to diversity, equity, and inclusion in Higher Education. I write this as the mother of a two-time cancer survivor, a budding filmmaker, and two homeschooled littles. As the bereaved daughter of an MD who died of COVID-19 while on the front lines of this pandemic, to whom I didn’t get to say goodbye to and buried over Zoom. As an older sister now in charge of her younger sibling’s education. As a wife juggling too many calendars, schedules and ordering dinner more often than I’d like to admit. As a colleague and as a friend.

I write this at a time when national and global crises unfold weekly at such unforgiving speed that we are unable to fully process one event before garnering strength to confront the next. Through it all, I often meet with faculty members whose students say that they wished administrators, faculty and staff better supported them through a crisis. I wonder if they see us as human, too. I wish my colleagues and I could say to students: I Couldn’t Care More!  And I wish they believed us. But amidst the current culture of immediacy, calling out, and canceling, this is not the case. Instead, people are expected to react in the moment without regard to the cognitive processes necessary to make sense of unfathomable pain. Instead of asking each other questions, people are called out, canceled, and even threatened. Silence is no longer a solemn and dignified parenthesis in how we process challenging events; rather, it is seen as a sign that people don’t care.

After the Boulder shooting, I was unable to write a statement. For 28-years, I have called Boulder, CO, home. A week ago, I found myself amidst the deafening sound of Flight for Life helicopters, ambulances, and patrol cars. I held my two young daughters close, called my two older sons on their cells, and texted my family and friends. I feared for my mom, my only living parent, who had told me she’d be going to the grocery store. I remembered what it felt like when, years ago, I sat in a physics classroom at Boulder High School while the Columbine shooting unfolded. I thought about my two youngest children and wondered why I would send them back to in-person school after a challenging but somewhat successful homeschooling year. I imagined what would happen if a shooting occurred at my son’s University: because of cancer surgeries, he cannot run, how then would he get out of harm’s way? I wondered what this would mean for my career, my research.  I thought about myself and all of my colleagues across K-12 and Higher Ed, the ways we compartmentalize our lives to devote ourselves wholly to our students. Yet today, in the current context, that doesn’t seem enough for students. I wrestled with what I would say, what statement I would write for the Office of Teaching and Learning. The words didn’t come; in a way, writing another statement would have been disingenuous.

That is why I write this instead. Because we inhabit the world at a time when the cyclical nature of devastating events triggers painful memories that continue to challenge our individual and collective courage. This unfolding of violence, human loss, and grief has destabilized our external and internal worlds. So much so that our emotional, physical, and pedagogical resources are exhausted. How, then, do we continue to support our students’ ability to thrive in the classroom when we may be hanging on by a thread? While I wish I could provide you with step-by-step instructions on doing this, I cannot. While I can only offer the various resources, statements, and communities that have emerged as a result of these crises; what I think we all need most is this guide from our colleagues in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology:

Recommendations from the Graduate School of Professional Psychology

In the aftermath of the continued violence against Asian and Asian American people, our GSPP community is called to respond. Below, driven by the contributions of current IDP Alum and Dean’s Diversity Committee member, Marika Sitz, you will find some of the best practices for responding to identity-based violence. Marika also serves as the current Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Manager for Jefferson County. It is our hope that these tools can be used throughout our graduate programs and our unit as a whole in the coming days to begin to provide support.

When people are targeted based on their identities it can often have a vicarious trauma effect on other members of that identity group evoking thoughts such as “it could have been me” and “am I safe”. This same affect can be felt outside of those identity communities. This can have an impact on work, productivity, mood, mental health, physical health, and general well-being. Addressing these heartbreaking events is part of our duty in creating a culture of inclusion, belonging, and safety.

Information about the March 16, 2021 killings:
New York Times: 8 Dead in Atlanta Spa Shootings, With Fears of Anti-Asian Bias
Anti-Asian Violence Resources

Response Tools & Tips:

Step 1: Acknowledge what is happening
a. Acknowledge that the event took place
b. Research and educate yourself (see above resources) to know context.
c. Share resources and information for those with questions.
d. Take your time, don’t breeze through the topic.
e. If able, share your own feelings and model vulnerability when safe.

Step 2: Reduce work-related pressure
a. Talk with employees about how they are doing.
b. Reexamine workflow and necessary tasks, shifting deadlines if possible.
c. Understand that while we are in a state of trauma response our neural functioning is not at its peak. (This can manifest in varying degrees of intensity, refer staff to HR if they need accommodation.)

Step 3: Make space for discussion
a. A check-in, formal or informal space to talk about recent events.
b. A follow-up to the verbal acknowledgment (step 1).
c. Hold space in a staff meeting for people to share their responses.
d. Connect the information back to the work only after allowing for individuals to express their own feelings.

Step 4: Support employees wholistically
a. This means supporting employees in their work duties, but also in their wellbeing.
b. Provide resources internal and external: It is best practice to remind all employees of the resources available to them. At DU that could be the Employee Assistance Program, the Health and Counseling Center or Student Outreach and Support.
c. Check-in again, these events can preoccupy an employee’s mind for weeks or months after the incident

Please know that I am available to support, collaborate, or to help find answers to questions that arise.

In solidarity,

Dr. Travis Heath
Co-Director, International Disaster Psychology Program, GSPP
Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, GSPP

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