Respond to Grief with Patience

Editor’s note: This article is part of a larger conversation about an incident involving the Tappan Square rocks which began with Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Comparative American Studies Meredith Gadsby’s and Chair of Geology Zeb Page’s letters to the editor. First-year Elizabeth Hawk has also written a response.

On Wednesday, April 28, I was told about some controversy and anger regarding the spray-painting of a rock in Tappan Square. This past September, my brother Aiden’s name was painted on the rock next to the archway by his close friends Jenn Snowden and Matty LaValley. I was away from Oberlin at the time. Aiden passed away on Aug. 29, 2020, after an almost two-year long fight against acute myeloid leukemia. He was diagnosed in November 2018, during my first year at Oberlin, when we were both students here. I drove him to University Hospital in Cleveland on a Friday afternoon thinking that he had Lyme disease — instead I was told that he had an aggressive form of cancer. 

Aiden was the best brother in the entire world. I chose to come to Oberlin because he was here, and in the three brief months we spent going to school together, I felt the most safe I’ve ever felt on this campus. I knew that if anything happened to me or if I just needed someone to eat dinner with me, he was there. 

I took the spring 2020 semester off because we were given bad news about Aiden’s condition at the end of January. I returned to Oberlin in February this year after being away for over a year. I had been on campus before without Aiden physically being there, but walking onto campus for the first time without even being able to call him when things went wrong was hard, to say the least. The first night I was here, I was scared to go to the dining hall because of COVID-19, had to carry all my things up four flights of stairs with just two people, and couldn’t get into my building or room because my keycard had been deactivated. 

The first time I saw Aiden’s rock in real life, I was just walking to get food from Talcott Hall. I immediately started crying. I’d seen pictures of the rock — I knew it was there, and yet seeing that it was still there and no one had painted over it in over five months hit me in a different way. I felt my grief seen by the campus. I felt that everyone who saw that rock everyday would think of Aiden, that he would be remembered. I know that is not necessarily true, and I know that the rock obviously means more to me than it does to most people who see it. The rock became a daily reminder to me that my brother’s life was being celebrated and remembered by people other than myself. 

When I heard about the vigil that was being planned for the murder of Daunte Wright, I began to brace myself for Aiden’s rock to be covered up, as it is directly next to where the vigil was being held. I reminded myself, Aiden’s name will always be there, even if under layers of other paint, and Aiden would have wanted Daunte’s name to replace his. Aiden was a staunch advocate for Black Lives Matter. He knelt during the national anthem at all his Oberlin lacrosse games despite being discouraged from doing so by his teammates and coaches. Aiden would have been shocked and honored for his name to remain in Tappan Square as long as it did. 

But the day of the vigil came, and to my surprise, Aiden’s name was still there. I’ll admit I felt some relief. I was glad to still have my place to go to remember Aiden on Saturday mornings. I was glad that the paint his friends put there all those months ago was still there. Daunte’s name soon appeared on another rock in Tappan, and I was grateful to the community members who chose not to replace my brother’s name, but add to the growing demonstrations of grief and loss across campus. 

This has been a hard year. It has certainly been the worst of my life, and I know that many other people on this campus have lost a loved one or have been forced to witness the senseless murders of people of color at the hands of the police. This has been a hard year.

I understand the desire for some levity. I share the desire for kind words and heartfelt messages. I was never a Girl Scout, but I can imagine this spring being a very exciting time for those young girls, and painting a rock seems like an excellent way to celebrate being able to spend time together again.

But grief is a complicated emotion. It cannot simply be boiled down to anger or selfishness. People in the throes of grief make choices and do things that they feel they need to do, and that is okay. For Oberlin College professors to invalidate students’ feelings of grief and loss seems childish and immoral. 

On Friday afternoon, I was eating lunch outside of Talcott Hall, just out of view of the rock. I could see Campus Safety cars and people standing around the rock. I immediately knew Aiden’s name had been covered. I couldn’t focus anymore and had to go look. I biked slowly past, seeing blank whiteness where my brother’s name used to be. I didn’t know what had happened, who had covered it, or why it didn’t say anything on it. All I knew was that there was another thing in my life to grieve. I biked to the other end of Tappan Square and began to cry. I called my friends, and they quickly came to comfort me. We sat together and I eventually became calm. I remembered what my friend had told me: that Aiden’s name would always be there under all those layers. That Aiden’s legacy does not die with the covering of his name. 

The next day, my friend sent me a photo of the rock. It suddenly had Aiden’s name written on it again. I didn’t know who had done it, but it simply exacerbated my confusion around the whole situation. I texted Jenn, who had written his name the first time, and she said it was not she who had re-written his name. She and I planned to return soon to re-write his name ourselves. On Tuesday afternoon, Jenn and I spray-painted Aiden’s name along with his class year, 2021 — a stark reminder to us and to everyone who sees it that he should be graduating this year. Jenn remarked that she hoped it would still be there during graduation so that her family could see it. 

I did not know about the Girl Scouts’ plan for the rock until Wednesday, when I  heard about the Review articles written by Oberlin professors. I immediately felt the urge to set the record straight. To defend myself and my brother’s name. Although I disagree with the choice to cover up the Girl Scouts’ work, I understand why it was done. Grief is a complicated emotion. I have done things since my brother died that have made no sense to other people. The first time I saw Aiden’s rock, I went up to it and gave it a hug. Whenever I see a lacrosse player on campus, I avoid eye contact because it is too much to think about the fact that they know deeply personal things about me, and I know nothing about them. I eat copious amounts of chocolate simply because I’m sad most of the time. 

Grief is a complicated emotion. If we’re really to understand it and to empathize with it, we must not jump to accusations and petty callouts of other “petty” things. We must talk to each other. Even when grief makes us yell. We must apologize for hurt feelings, but also make room for the complicated mistakes that define grief. I urge the professors, students, parents, and children involved in this silly fight to talk to each other. To apologize to each other. It was wrong to cover up the Girl Scouts’ art. It is just as much their right to paint the rock as it is the students’. But it was also wrong for the professors to use their power to call out hurt, grieving students who had no chance to stand up for themselves. 

Grief is a complicated emotion. Please be patient with each other.