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How to grieve a time and place

feel your feelings

I don’t like bell peppers, so on Tuesdays, when the Divinity Cafe serves them for lunch, I always notice the smell of them cooking. Wednesdays are distinctive, too–the sharp and spicy smell of Buffalo Mac ‘n’ Cheese, the little-bit-cramped, elbow-touching feeling from every one of those red chairs being full. I love Div like that: when you can hardly find a seat, when you have to shout over the clinking silverware and surrounding conversation. But I also love it after it’s just opened, with two best friends before our 8:30 class, when it smells like fresh coffee and baked oatmeal and breakfast meat. Or at 2:45 p.m. on a Friday, when the tables have been wiped and it smells like cleaning spray, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a cookie that nobody wants to waste. The lights are always warm, yellow, easy on the eyes. Every time I go there–and I went there every day–somebody I love is there.

I miss it.

Lately I’ve found myself pausing the sixth season of a show I began mere days ago, closing my laptop and shutting my eyes. Then I put myself back there, back in Div Cafe, or in my dorm room, or in a rehearsal space, or in a place where I worshipped or in my favorite study spots. I breathe in, inhabiting these places again. Remembering what it felt like to be there: what I could hear, smell, touch, see, taste.

I’m sure typical seniors spend their last few weeks soaking in the special way the trees look through the windows of Goodson Chapel, the way their friends sound when they’re all talking and eating and laughing together, the way Div Cafe smells on Tuesdays. When you leave for Spring Break as a senior and never come back, you miss out on the closure of being somewhere one last time, knowing that it’s the last time.

Of course, most of us will return–at the very least, many of us have dorm rooms to pack up. We’ll have a graduation ceremony, where we’ll surely feel the painful absence of all the people missing. There will be reunions, campus visits.

But Duke’s campus alone doesn’t mean much to me. It’s just a familiar place. What matters to me is walking into those familiar places and seeing the faces of people I love, people who have become my family.

We will never truly come back to the place we left behind, because we will never again be surrounded by all of the people who make it feel like home. That’s why tears roll down my cheeks when I imagine myself in all my Duke places again. Because even though I’ll return, I’ll never go back.

How do you grieve a time and place? How do you mourn for a moment, a memory?

There isn’t anything quite like a global pandemic to put our individual losses in perspective, especially for those who find ourselves in safety. What right do we have to grieve when members of our community have lost their security, lost their jobs, lost their loved ones?

We all need space to process this communal tragedy. But a global pandemic also gives us plenty of room to ignore our own pain. And while it may feel like we’re serving the world when we push down our own sadness, we also need to acknowledge the very individual, very valid, very painful grief for a present and a future that we thought would be different. 

One of the things I learned this year by grieving an intangible loss is that I don’t do anyone any good when I deny my own pain. I did that for years, but my grief never went away because I denied it. The feelings just came back later: stuck, hardened, all-consuming.

I don’t want to think of how Duke ended every time I think of Duke. So I go back. I let myself be in the places I should be, and grieve for what I’ve lost.

If it feels safe and good, I’d encourage you to try it. You can open your eyes and stop anytime.

Think of a place and time where you felt peace and comfort. Breathe in. What does it smell like? Listen. What sounds do you hear? Look around. Are you with somebody? What are they wearing? What does their face look like? What do they say? What do they smell like? Look at your hands. What can you touch? What temperature is it? How does the ground feel beneath you? Turn your head. What can you see? How do you feel?

If it helps you to write, write it down. If it helps you to tell someone, phone a friend. They might really like being back in that place with you, too. Like, do you remember how squishy the ground is when you sit on the Chapel quad in the springtime? Do you remember how it smells like pollen and grass and sunscreen? Remember that time somebody told us that we ruined her picture of the Chapel? Remember when we ordered a pizza to the bus stop and ate it straight out of the box together? Remember those days when we stayed until it got dark?

Remember?

I can’t be back in these places and times without weeping. But the tears don’t feel like the anxious, bitter, stuck-behind-my-throat sobs. They feel soft, easy, gentle. They come without much prompting: just from the memory of a smell, a sound. When I open my eyes and look around, I feel softer and lighter. 

Those memories, those sensations, that place and that time: they’re mine, all mine. Nobody can take them away from me. They are there for me whenever I need them. They belong to me.

We will never go back to the same place we left. Yet we can go back, over and over, remembering and remembering and remembering. And in the remembering, we learn to trust that some of the peace and comfort of that place and time will find us here. Even now.

Liddy Grantland is a Trinity senior who would do just about anything for some baked oatmeal right now. Her column, feel your feelings, runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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