I had anxiety as a child. Not the clinical sort but the kind only a child can inhabit. I worried about what held the Earth up and what would happen if that nebulous entity should get tired at any point.
I worried about what was beneath the ground and how we could even know, given that whatever lay beneath the surface also lay beyond our sight line. I worried about quicksand, Bermuda triangles, and plenty of other topics that I haven’t thought about in years.
But the fears themselves aren’t important.
What is important is the way I coped. Talking about these fears only went so far, the answers I received unsatisfactory and limited. So I began to spell.
Words would pop out to me from storybooks or billboards, and I would carefully note each letter in my mind.
The words varied in meaning and in length, but each letter had its place, a clear role to play. And each was finite yet when joined with its counterparts took on meaning and substance. The tail attached to ‘Q’ didn’t stretch out to oblivion; it stopped, its reign definite. The ridges of ‘E’ and gentle slopes of ‘M’ provided a home for the queasy feeling in my stomach, the flutters in my chest, and the slight crease between my eyebrows.
The words helped me. They provided a structure, an order I could abide by and operate within.
As I got older, the words slowed down, my mind quieting and organizing itself as I grew. I no longer needed the soothing crests of ‘B’ or the crinkle of ‘W’ to contain my errant thoughts. In fact, it wasn’t until recently that I gave this odd coping mechanism much thought.
My professor died. She died in a time when death feels commonplace, divorced from the individual, with only numbers able to contain the sheer magnitude of the loss we have suffered. My professor’s name was Susan. S-U-S-A-N.
Within those five letters, a whole person lived. Within those letters lies a great stretch of years filled with people and love and accomplishments and, yes, grief.
“Goodbye” has seven letters. “Death” has five. Their length is insufficient for the weight they carry.
Susan was not the first person I lost during the pandemic. She was not my first Zoom memorial or my first form email with the subject line “Sad News.”
We never met in person. My impressions of her were limited to a 5-by-7-inch square on my computer screen, which cast her in my mind’s eye as diminutive and subdued. But she might have been a towering 6 feet tall and as bold as brass. Her life was filled with grand accomplishments she rarely alluded to, her humility outmatched only by her kindness.
Processing her loss has been hard. It defies sorting. Our relationship was odd, defined by a time of physical boundaries and social distance, both physical and emotional. There’s no label to neatly affix to our time together. Can you mourn someone you never really met?
I have spent the last year tamping down my emotions, numbing myself to the loss of both the tangible and the amorphous. How do you mourn the loss of a way of life? How do you mourn a Zoom screen? An icon on a Google doc?
At what point do you lose the ability to mourn at all?
There is no structure for this grief; there are no boundaries or limitations. There are no stages, five or otherwise. The tail to the ‘Q’ keeps traveling well beyond the confines of this page, its point dull and strokes broad. I cannot define this feeling that lingers even as masks come off and reveal smiling faces and hugs make a comeback. I want so badly to pour it into the mold of some existing emotion, some long-worn tradition of bereavement. Yet no tool set exists to reckon with this loss or even stake out its borders.
Each morning, headlines offer paths forward as this collective nightmare slowly recedes. Grief is present in each paragraph — grief for those lost to COVID-19 and for those we might have lost anyway. Between the lines, there is also a selfish sort of grief over all the possibilities the last year extinguished. I yearn for a return to normal and a return to socializing. Most of all, I yearn for an end to numbness.
I am not an expert in grief, nor really an expert in anything at all. I am just someone who lost her professor, and no words or letters seem to fill the place she left behind.
Samantha Harris is an Ohio native and a rising third-year at Harvard Law School. She lives in Cambridge with her dog, Hugo.