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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

Grieving Remotely

Nancy Effinger Wilson

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Keywords: friend/colleague death; grief

Categories: Navigating Loss and Grief; Place-Making and Space-Taking on Social Media

Content warning: death and grief

In March of 2020, I had just finished teaching my first ever class over Zoom when I noticed a missed text asking me to call a friend. Instead of “hello,” she answered, “Oh God, Nancy,” and then told me that a friend we had worked with for nearly a decade had passed away earlier that day. Within moments my grief morphed to despair as I realized that her family would not be able to fly to Texas due to the nation’s stay-at-home directive. I also realized that my department was not going to be able to gather in person to mourn our colleague.

Seeking a socially-distanced outlet for my and my department’s grief, and hopefully some bit of comfort for her family and students, I created a public, online memory book. I drafted an obituary and added photos of my colleague—one of her in the writing center that I directed at the time, taken the year she started graduate school. Just twenty years old, she is beaming from behind our reception desk, so eager to start teaching, to start helping others.

I then asked for submissions even as I worried that I was obligating people whose emotional resources were already depleted. I suspected, though, that the lack of opportunities to grieve with others was contributing to our suffering. Only a few hours after posting the memory book, I received a photo of our colleague balancing perfectly and peacefully on a branch above the beautiful San Marcos River that runs through our town. Then someone wrote to ask if a photo of our colleague with a glass of wine in her hand at a department party would be appropriate to post. Of course it was. Periodically I would receive an email from someone telling me, “I’m writing something! I just want to make sure I have it exactly right.” Over the days, my opening post became but one of twenty.

Clearly the memory book was performing a crucial function for my colleagues, not just helping us to cope with our grief but also restoring some crucial human function that we were being denied during those fraught times when even small acts of caring for others were considered dangerous. Buying groceries for a neighbor now involved wiping down all of the items, leaving the bags on the doorstep, and hoping that you hadn’t missed anything that could transmit the virus. In crafting tributes to our colleague and for those who treasured her, we were able to be selfless, human.

Reading through the posts—love letters to my colleague, really--my sadness both deepened and lightened as I realized how many others were likewise grieving. As we crafted a deep description of this person and her superhuman kindness, her extraordinary joie de vivre, and her genius as a writing teacher, the memory book became a repository of our collective admiration and gratitude as we relived the joy of being in this person’s presence, being the recipients of her incredible generosity of spirit. We no longer felt so alone in our pain. And all of this was captured in this book.

Tragically, just as the semester was almost over, another instructor in our department passed away. Again, I knew the person well.  This time I was even less sure that I could carry on.  But as anyone knows who has ever had to tend to such details in the midst of grief, it is a blessing and a curse—a curse because you’re in pain and exhausted, but a blessing because focusing on the details occupies your mind and provides a respite from the constant thoughts of what has been lost. Having gone through this process earlier, this time when I made the memory book, I anticipated the solace I would soon experience as others, including students this time, contributed their stories and photos. And so it was.

Looking back on these tragic losses during the early months of the pandemic, I know that actual hugs would have been much more reassuring and healing than the virtual ones we had to give each other over Zoom and in a memory book. I also acknowledge that had we as a faculty not bonded with these two colleagues and each other, and had their students not felt a strong connection to their instructors prior to this wretched time, the memory books might have been carried out pro forma.

And yet despite my deep concerns that “real” life, especially as a result of COVID-19, was being supplanted by a virtual one, this memory book facilitated a mourning that felt more authentic than any funeral service I had ever attended. Perhaps the isolation and helplessness we felt led us all to be more forthright in our feelings. Certainly by writing our grief, we were forced to slow down, to plumb our memories, and in the process to actually experience our sorrow and our anger.

Both memory books continue to serve as tangible reminders not only of our colleagues’ extraordinary lives, but also of how a dark time was nonetheless made lighter because we collectively shared a grief that no one person had to shoulder it alone. It isn’t true that people cannot properly grieve losses because they cannot gather. There is a way forward, and in our case it was through writing, together. 



Dr. Nancy Effinger Wilson is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Lower-Division Studies at Texas State University. 

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