Mental Health

Covid, Ambiguous Loss, Normalcy

Recently, I’ve had a lot of conversations about whether fall 2022 would be a “normal” semester. What this conversation often turns on is whether accommodations made during the pandemic–giving students more flexibility, adjusting our expectations for attendance, etc.–will be needed again this fall.

As I reflect on this issue, I appreciate Pauline Boss’s research on “ambiguous loss.” [See here and here for short overviews.] One way of reading her work is to see it as a critique of the idea that there are stages of grief. For Boss, grieving doesn’t work according to our categories and plans. And we shouldn’t feel guilty when working to manage something as complex and difficult as mourning. No one has permission to tell us we need to get over our loss. And we need to practice kindness when we find ourselves engaging in this type of negative self-talk.

To greater and lesser degrees, all of our students lost something because of the pandemic. At the least, rituals of adolescence–proms, senior performances, and games–were lost. They also lost opportunities to build valuable social, academic, and emotional skills, trapped behind masks and alone in front of their screens doing remote schooling. But many of our students will have also lost loved ones. In one way or another, our students will be grieving, and we need to understand what this will mean for our teaching practices.

Jane Brody’s summary of Boss’s work offers a useful discussion of how moving away from thinking in terms of stages of grief opens new avenues for thinking about how to build resilience in our post-pandemic world. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Find meaning
  • Adjust your sense of mastery
  • Normalize ambivalence
  • Discover new hope

How this translates into the classroom will vary from course to course. But we faculty can do a great deal to make our classrooms spaces where students find new meaning and discover new hope. We can inspire and engage them. But we also have to realize that our students will have better and worse days. They will often succumb to all or nothing thinking, instead of embracing ambivalence. They will hold onto ideals of mastery from before the pandemic that may be difficult to live out in our new normal.

I suggest we do everything we can to be understanding and explicitly address the challenges that we are all facing together. Normalize the fact that we will still struggle. Celebrate the progress individual students make. Encourage students to redefine what success and purpose look like.

When in doubt, go back to our course goals and the mission of St. Lawrence. We shouldn’t make adjustments and accommodations that undercut our goals or missions. We are a face-to-face institution and students need to know why it is important that they make every effort to come to class. We can also do more to explain why our assignments matter, and be sure that the work we do assign is connected to our learning goals, and something that might help our students find meaning, hope, and purpose.

I look forward to meeting with individuals and departments as they continue to figure out what our new normal will look like this fall. Just as we need to be understanding to our students, we need to practice it with ourselves. We don’t need to be perfect to be a beacon of hope for our students and each other.