Granting grief

Last week, I found out one of my professors had passed away. When I say that I acknowledged this gradually, I mean it — even now I am still coming to terms with fully accepting what has happened. We all are. And that is okay.

I went to class one day and Professor Lifongo was there with us, smiling and laughing about how tired we all looked for a Monday morning class. He filled the classroom with his passion for the ideas within the literature we analyzed together. He asked us all very insightful and at times even mildly uncomfortable questions as he pushed us to think outside the box regarding the impact colonialism has had upon our modern world. He always asked us how we were doing. He would say good morning at the start of every class, and then wish us a good day as we packed up at the end. 

One day, Professor Lifongo wished us a good rest of the day for the last time. Finding out about his passing was a shocking and very new experience for me. I have never before had the experience of losing a professor. The grief hit me in waves.

I want to share with you all my process of grieving because I want you all to know grief is okay, and grief is something you should allow yourself without judgement. After Professor Lifongo’s passing, I was made aware of how people within our society have a tendency to carry very strong expectations regarding the grief people express around a death. In our culture, the only people that are allowed to feel grief are those who knew the person who passed well. I find this notion unrealistic and problematic. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. 

Everyone shows grief in their own private and unique ways, and no one should be judged or compared to in their displays of grief. I say all of this because my classroom is now a space no longer filled with the laughter of Professor Lifongo. The space is filled with an awkward grief, an acute awareness of the loss, of the empty chair. 

When Professor Smith came in and told us the news, there was a definite tension in the room. He asked us all if anyone had taken classes with Professor Lifongo before and very few students raised their hands. Everyone handled the news differently — I personally ended up crying by the end of the class. Later on, I talked with my roommates about it all and I felt almost guilty for crying as much as I had. I had only known Professor Lifongo starting this term, and I felt like my small amount of time knowing him did not allow me to grieve the amount I was.

I had this strange notion inside my head that grief almost worked like a graph, with grief on the y-axis and time spent knowing the person on the x-axis, and grief could only increase along with the amount of time spent together. But guess what? Grief does not work like that. Our society has given us formulated expectations of how we should perform sadness over the loss of a person, and it is highly tied into our relationship with that person. But expectations are not accurate descriptions of reality. 

Dr. Morgan-Clement came into our class and told us that new grief often ties you back into an old loss. As I processed this loss, I ended up talking with my roommates about how it had impacted me, and about loss and grief in general. Eventually we got to the topic of our grandmothers’ deaths and that familial loss that we mourned. Neither of my roommates knew Professor Lifongo, but all three of us were able to share in a kind of cathartic expression and awareness of loss. Just like Dr. Morgan-Clement said, this loss tied all of us back to old grief we did not even realize we were still carrying. 

In summary, no one should feel pressured to “perform” a certain amount of grief — I find grieving to be a very intimate and private process that is highly unique to every person. But no matter how you try to avoid it, it does impact you in ways stronger than you think. Not all of you readers may have known Professor Lifongo. I only had the brief pleasure of knowing him for a few weeks. But I feel justified in my tears for the loss of such a bright and positive force on our campus. Please know grief is unexpected and may come in unexpected ways, like it did for me and my roommates as we reminisced over familial loss. 

But grief is a part of life, and it is a beautiful process because it brings people together. To the family and friends of Professor Lifongo, I offer my sincerest condolences. Even though I did not know him very long, he left a lasting impression on me, as well as on our entire campus. He will be greatly missed.