On the day my grandmother died, an inescapable feeling of loss hung over my home. My dad grieved quietly over the loss of his mother, and I tried to grapple with the fact that I no longer lived in a world with my vibrant, witty and resilient grandmother. My mom tried her best to comfort me. She held me tightly, and I knew that as she stroked my knotted hair she was trying to figure out how to shield me from the pain of loss. Her actions reverberated with love and comfort, but her words were troubling.
“You gotta let go, Neni. Death is a natural part of life. Give it a little time, then move on. You can’t dwell on things,” she repeated over and over.
I wasn’t taken aback by these words; I’d come to see neglecting my emotions as the normal way of dealing with them. Over my lifetime, my mom taught me that loss, pain and worrying about mental health were things that I needed to let go of. This distant attitude is based on my mom’s life mantra: that stopping to take time for yourself, rather than focusing on the lives and success of those you love, is selfish.
My mom grew up impoverished and brown, and this reality required that she have the ability to persevere in the face of all obstacles. But I also know from experience that this mindset can rob an individual of the ability to articulate and address pain in all its troubling iterations. And after a little more than a year at Occidental, where talking about pain and processing emotions is accepted and encouraged, I now know that simply letting go of whatever I’m facing is not the only way to handle challenging times.
My friend is struggling from a loss that she can’t shake off or distract herself from. Sometimes she crawls under the covers of her bed, blinds closed and phone off, overwhelmed by sadness and depression. Yet, on these days she can reach out to me and say, “I’m struggling. These are the reasons why.” She sifts through her emotions in a way that I was never taught or expected to. I don’t think she realizes that this is a form of privilege.
I leave our emotionally heavy conversations marvelling over how some of my friends are able to directly address the root of their emotions and take specific steps to overcome difficult times. But I’m also reminded that I don’t do this. I never have.
I don’t get sad — I mean, I feel sadness, but have never taken the time to really sit with it. When losses occur, I distract myself. I text my boyfriend to tell me a funny story or I hear my mom’s voice running through my head.
“Don’t lay in bed and dwell on it. You’re missing out on life’s purpose.” She’d say.
I don’t deal with my emotions the same way as my friend, but I think that there are real repercussions to being emotionally illiterate. This is most prevalent when the campus community prioritizes emotional discourse in order to discuss on-campus issues.
At Occidental, we tend toward open communication and campus dialogue circles after contentious events. This one-size-fits-all technique only works for some, but there is a widespread notion that it should work for all. After contentious incidents occur on campus, our collective instinct is to gather in Choi Auditorium and discuss the events in a “town hall.” This model does not work for all of us. Yet these ways of addressing our issues privileges those who can talk about it and want to over those who can’t and don’t feel the need.
We as a community must recognize that it is a privilege to be willing and able to participate in these kinds of events. Additionally, it is a privilege to take a mental health day and to know that those exist in the first place. Most importantly, we as a community must recognize that possessing the ability to articulate your emotions in a way that is understood and seen as acceptable by those around you is a skill that many in my position lack. If we are negligent of these facts, then we as a community will fail to recognize the diversity — and at times, disparity — of knowledge present on this campus.
We must remind ourselves that with privilege comes immense responsibility to our community. It is our collective responsibility to recognize that not everyone has the language or the willingness to put their emotions, pain and mental health into words.
Despite this, we are responsible for caring for each other. This means that we accept when people don’t want to talk about what they’re feeling and we recognize that there are numerous ways of dealing with our emotions – and many of them don’t involve dialogue, tears and a concrete solution. It also means that we must be willing to share our emotional knowledge with others when we’re asked for it. Those equipped with emotional knowledge and skills must never assume that something they consider common knowledge is seen as common at all to someone else. I recognize that there are shortcomings to how my mom and I process our emotions, however, I also know that it works for us. There is no shame in talking about our experiences. There is no shame in not talking, either.
Kelsey Martin is a sophomore sociology major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.