COVID-19 Grief and a Classroom Cocoon of Collective Care

Student Maleigha holding the class butterfly mobile. Photo credit: Sabrina Reinwald.
May 10, 2022

On the last day of my winter 2022 Communicating Grief and Loss undergraduate class, I am leading my students through our final course culminating exercise. Grounded in what Emily Krebs, Nivea Castaneda, April Samaras, Jennifer Poole, Samantha Zerafa, and I have theorized as (anti-transcarceral) critical grief pedagogy, the class is a space where students (learn to) communicate (about) grief and loss through embodied practices including storytelling and artmaking. Here, amongst the scissors, glue, fabric, and yarn that garner quizzical looks and longing from others who pass by our classroom, we resist academic scripts that have taught us that students’ and teachers’ losses—even in these grief-filled COVID-19 times—are to be silenced. 

On the final day of class, using brightly dyed coffee filters and sparkly pipe cleaners, we are making butterflies that will hang together on a mobile. As we work, we discuss the craft’s potential symbolism for student learning. Earlier in the quarter, we explored the subversive cultural narratives that call grievers to persevere, journey on, and become stronger as a result their losses. My student Marie raises her hand and says thoughtfully, “Caterpillars turn to mush before transforming into butterflies.” She is referring to the step in the metamorphosis process when a caterpillar digests itself inside its cocoon or chrysalis. Inside this pupa are systems that use the mush, as Marie calls it, to fuel the cell division necessary to form a butterfly’s wings, antennae, and other distinct parts. Marie continues, “When it comes to our losses, we learn that we’re supposed to turn into butterflies.” Indeed, our cultural narratives uphold the idea that like a butterfly, in the face of our pain and suffering, we are to eventually shed our skins, transform, and emerge as a more stunning version of ourselves. “But what we learned in this class,” Marie goes on, “is how to be in the mush together.” She is articulating the core of critical grief pedagogy: learning to engage in the messiness of grief with others. I beam with pride and think to myself, “My work here is done.” 

In the face of the multitude of losses and challenges students and faculty have endured during the COVID-19 pandemic, our work is just beginning.

I am keenly aware, however, that the work of critical grief pedagogy that makes space for faculty and student grief is far from over. In the face of the multitude of losses and challenges students and faculty have endured during the COVID-19 pandemic, our work is just beginning. We are grieving the COVID-related deaths of more than 6 million people worldwide. Additionally, the pandemic has led to other types of loss for students, such as increased food insecurity and loss of social connection and learning opportunities. The difficulties associated with these losses include increases in stress, substance use, and mental health challenges, as well as lower educational retention and graduation rates. These losses and challenges are amplified for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students, students with disabilities, and students who also are caregivers. Faculty, too, have experienced a plethora of loss, and their well-being has plummeted. They have reported increased anxiety, stress, burnout, and workload, as well as deterioration in work-life balance (especially for women) and a desire to change careers.

I am not sure that those of us in higher education can do this much longer. And by “this,” I mean the way we seem to be ignoring that we are all grieving. Despite COVID-19 vaccinations, decreasing COVID-19 positivity and death rates, the lifting of mask mandates, and the return to in-person learning, we do not seem to be emerging as butterflies. We are, in Marie’s terms, still “in the mush.”

Marie’s adept insight on our last day of class has me contemplating what we can do here and now in this place of dismemberment, where we, like the caterpillar, get glimpses of our former and forthcoming lives, floating all around us. Rather than seeing our COVID-related losses as something to be gotten through or managed away as quickly as possible so that we can get to rising from the cocoon, how can students and faculty collectively embody a pedagogy that cradles their suffering? After all, the average lifespan of a butterfly is only a few weeks, so why not be here, in the mush with one another, a while longer? 

To answer these questions, I draw on my work with colleagues on anti-transcarceral and critical grief pedagogy, but I also ask what else the butterfly and my students, including Marie, have to teach us about grieving at school. I offer readers my reflections on these teachings in hopes that they might find ways not of “getting through this together,” as early COVID-19 mantras suggested, but rather of how faculty and students can “be in this (ongoing grief) together.” These offerings, however, should not be read as “tips and tricks for managing grief in the classroom.” There are no one-size-fits-all remedies for ridding faculty and students of their grief and its related challenges, nor should there be. 

There are no one-size-fits-all remedies for ridding faculty and students of their grief and its related challenges, nor should there be. 

One theory about why moths (not technically butterflies, but still metamorphosizers) are attracted to light is that they navigate using the moon and stars. As a result, they can be thrown off track by “man-made” light sources. Like the moth, grieving faculty and students can be led astray by artificial rules that constrain us, not just as grievers, but as teachers and learners. These rules are grounded in systems of power such as capitalism, colonialism, heteropatriarchy, and white supremacy, all of which affect and reflect where and how we grieve, who can grieve, and who or what we are allowed grieve. In my Communicating Grief and Loss class this past quarter, we began by acknowledging how some of these rules seep into higher education. For example, taking care of one’s health (and grief) is typically an individualized project of the student. We have seen such discourses display themselves in the form of pushes for “self-care” during the pandemic. In my own classroom over the years, such narratives have manifested in course policies including, “It is your responsibility to find out what you have missed when you are absent,” and “You will receive a 10 percent reduction in points for every day an assignment is late.” The implicit message is: If you miss class or can’t get your work done on time, there will be a penalty. Essentially, you are on your own

In our class, we began to explore alternatives to these ways of teaching, learning, and being, especially as we faced the new COVID-19 Omicron variant that had us online for the first two weeks of the winter quarter, as many students were quarantined or in isolation. We read work in disability studies on the concept of collective care, an idea that originated with queer and Black crip-feminist organizers. In their Briarpatch article, Rushdia Mehreen and David Gray-Donald suggested that collective care imagines each group member’s well-being not as the sole responsibility of the individual, but rather as the joint responsibility of a group. Through such shared accountability, groups are then able to address oppressions facing the group, as well as society at large. 

The concept of collective care was exciting for me as an instructor, but it also was unsettling. After all, I have spent much of my teaching career upholding whiteness, grief supremacy, and neoliberal productivity in my classrooms. I have had “high standards” and strict requirements for attendance and due dates. If I loosened those, would my students be prepared for life after college? Would they take advantage of my caring nature?

Despite my fears, I decided to change some of my course policies. For example, rather than penalizing students for late work, I invited them to email me to propose a new deadline if they were struggling to complete the assignment on time. With this policy, I chose to ask myself: “Does it really matter to me or students’ learning if they turn in their assignment today or tomorrow?” The answer is typically “no.” In addition, instead of assuming that students were lazy or did not manage their time well, I chose to assume that they were experiencing some sort of difficulty. Despite my fears that my new policy would lead to complete chaos, it did not. A few students asked for extensions when they needed them, but most turned their work in by the deadline set forth in the syllabus. I was not over-taxed, and students were cocooned in collective care.

The students, too, took on the load of collectively caring for one another. For example, each person had an “attendance buddy.” If someone was absent, their buddy would reach out to check in, share what we did in class, and ask if their buddy needed support. Students also worked to embody collective care across our university by hosting an arts-based COVID-19 grief workshop for faculty, staff, and students at the end of the quarter. Through this process of caring for one another inside the classroom and across our university community, I imagined us as a group of caterpillars, collectively crawling along, eating up the essential nutrients that are required to prepare for the work of learning how to navigate “the mush” of the pandemic. 

Unlike caterpillars, butterflies are unable to bite or chew. Instead, they drink a liquid diet through a straw-like tongue called a proboscis. Though they feed on nectar from flowers, they also drink substances in mud puddles, rotting fruit, sweat, excrement, and tears! What a perfect metaphor for a critical grief pedagogy that calls on us as instructors and learners to find sustenance in one another’s stories of COVID-19 suffering, stink, and decay. Indeed, being “in the mush” asks us not to be revolted or to turn away from one another’s experiences of loss, but to take them in, be moved by them, and even be sustained by them. 

As teachers, we uphold narratives that silence grief by leaving our own experiences with loss outside of the classroom out of fear of seeming “unprofessional” or “emotional.” We also tend to be unwilling to invite students to share their grief, because we worry that they (or we) may cry, that we are not therapists qualified to respond “appropriately,” or that we may be held responsible if students do not get the support they need. Of course, these are understandable fears given long-held narratives that stifle our engagement with grief in academia. However, I urge us to resist these storylines in the face of the torrential onslaught of loss that we have endured over the last two years. If we continue to silence grief, I fear that faculty and student mental health will further diminish, and that student learning will remain in jeopardy.

If we continue to silence grief, I fear that faculty and student mental health will further diminish, and that student learning will remain in jeopardy.

Students Phil and Abby with the red Marlboro hat

Critical grief pedagogy and the communal engagement with grief that it requires can reduce the isolation we feel. When teachers and students share our losses with one another, we can find solace and sustenance in one another’s experiences. I will end by sharing one of those instances involving my students Abby, Bailey, and Phil. On one of the first days of the course, Phil disclosed to the class that his father had died of brain cancer in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. Early in the quarter, the students read a book chapter I wrote that discusses the loss of my own dad due to his life-long struggle with alcohol use. Shortly after reading this chapter, Phil came to class wearing a red Marlboro hat. I chuckled to myself because my dad smoked Pall Mall cigarettes in a red package and owned several machines in bars that dispensed Marlboro Reds. I thought of him as Phil took his seat. It was also odd seeing such a hat on a young person. After all, young people smoking cigarettes is less common these days, especially in Colorado. And Marlboro Reds to boot—more of a brand for older people than 20-year-olds. What was even stranger to me was that a few days later, Abby came in wearing the red Marlboro hat. And then in the next class, Bailey was wearing it! Each time the hat and its wearer entered the classroom, I felt like my dad was saying “hello.”

I hesitated at first, but I eventually told Abby, Bailey, Phil, and the rest of the class that every time one of them came in wearing the red hat, I thought about my dad. Abby and Bailey shared that they had come across the hat in a thrift store on one of their hunts for vintage clothing. Although the hat is technically Abby’s, Bailey chimed in that she loves borrowing it because it is something no one else has and it looks “rad.” Though Phil was not there when they found the hat, he has tried to steal it from Abby on several occasions, as it is definitely the “coolest hat on campus.” Abby told me that although the hat was pricey, she is glad she spent the money, because it has become a communal accessory that several friends borrow. When Abby, Baily, and Phil told me the hat’s story, I couldn’t believe it! I like to think that my dad had some sort of hand in them finding and sharing that old-red-cigarette-branded hat, knowing that their lives and losses would intersect with mine. Before our last day of class, I emailed Phil and said, “Don’t forget the hat!” Of course, because he knows too well the pain of losing a father and the pain in longing for ongoing connection, Phil walked in that last day wearing the hat.  

I share this story because it demonstrates the power of teachers and students sharing their losses with one another. What a tragedy it would have been if I had not had my students read about the loss of my dad, if Phil hadn’t shared the loss of his own dad, and if I had pretended the hat wasn’t speaking to me in such a profound way. 

At night or in wet or cold weather, butterflies roost, which means they rest and take shelter, sometimes alongside others. Perhaps we can find refuge and rest in these times of overwhelming grief, opening ourselves to the possibility that our stories of loss can collectively reflect like the multiple fractals of a kaleidoscope—the name for a group of butterflies.

 

Photo Credits:

Image 1: Sabrina Reinwald

Headshot: Emily Krebs

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Willer

ERIN K. WILLER is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Denver. Willer’s pedagogy and research are guided by this question: How can we engage storytelling, art, and embodied practices to cultivate communication, creativity, compassion, and community in the face of illness, death, and loss? Willer is the founder of the Scraps of the Heart Project and the host of the YouTube channel Griever Teacher Ph.D. She has been honored with several research and teaching awards, including the 2018 Journal of Family Communication Article of the Year Award and the 2020 Western States Communication Association’s Distinguished Teacher Award.