Grieving a mentor
October 31, 2014 10:30 PM   Subscribe

A mentor of mine passed away pretty suddenly a few weeks ago. I attended her funeral, cried, wrote out some of my thoughts, and think about her from time to time while listening to music that reminds me of her. This isn't affecting my daily function, but it has been on the back burner for a while. Now what?

The overwhelming majority of my contact with her the year before her passing was via email because I moved to another city for medical school. She didn't respond to one of my emails, and then several weeks later, I found out that she had passed away.

I have all these email records from her-- hundreds of emails of our correspondence, many about all sorts of intensely personal matters-- and I don't want to look at them. I have the vague sense that I might want to read them sometime in the future, but for now it's just a weight in my inbox. And that's sort of how I feel about grieving her: a bit nervous about the whole process, feeling this general sense that I'm not done grieving, having no idea when I will be finished grieving (or if I am already), or what having properly grieved her would even look like.

While she wasn't family, she was probably within the top two or three most influential people for me at a time in my life when I was rapidly growing and changing as a person. I can barely imagine finishing school without her cheering me on at the finish line. I didn't have many mutual contacts with her-- perhaps only one or two-- because she was a mentor to me and not a peer or a family member, which limits the community I have / had to grieve with. I've never lost anybody so important to me before. What am I supposed to do? What should I do with the emails? What should I expect? What do I need to do to feel like I've properly processed all of this?
posted by gemutlichkeit to Human Relations (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I saved all the emails under an email tag out of my inboxes so I don't see them on a day-to-day basis, but still have them. I include him in my prayer list and bring him and his importance when talking about the organisation he helped start. But I only recently realised one anxiety about a work trip is that I will be going to a place that is so full of memories of him and will have to meet with his family, and just thinking about that makes me tearful even though it's been two years.
posted by viggorlijah at 10:52 PM on October 31, 2014

I'm a big believer in letting your subconscious regulate your grief. Assuming you aren't in active denial, these things have a certain ebb and flow to them. You probably aren't finished but you have done what you need to do for now. Then at certain times (sometimes predictable times like graduation, sometimes surprisingly random times) she will be on your mind and your subconscious is letting you know that it is time to do your next bit of grief work.

If you are feeling like you still need to do something now, I would suggest writing about her impact on you and your memories of her and sharing it with her family or others who knew her. Often funeral homes have an on-line obituary where people can add comments or there might be a memorial on a school website or you write a letter to the editor of the alumni magazine (assuming you knew her through an academic network) This lets you express your appreciation, helps preserve her memory and lets others who care about her know that she made difference in your life.
posted by metahawk at 11:17 PM on October 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

What do I need to do to feel like I've properly processed all of this?

"Closure" is bullshit. So if you're expecting to find that, stop.

All that happens as time goes by is that the sense of loss becomes less and less novel. It doesn't go away. We just get more used to living with it.

Nearly four years later and I'm still seeing things in the paper or online and thinking "I must tell Mum about... oh."
posted by flabdablet at 1:41 AM on November 1, 2014 [18 favorites]

I'm sorry for your loss.

Would it be appropriate for you to reach out to her family members and meet them for tea/coffee and share memories? When my father passed away I took great comfort from meeting colleagues of his who shared memories of my dad. I still infrequently keep up with one of them now -- the fact that I know someone who knew my dad in a professional context is meaningful to me.

Obviously you'd need to read social cues to make sure you weren't sharing unwelcome information but if your mentor had a good relationship with her family, this could be good for both you and the family; if this death was out of the blue and the family is in shock, it would be better to wait 6 months-a year.

Also, it sounds like you are spending time and energy trying to "plan" for your grief. My experience is that grief ebbs and flows, in the midst of lots of other emotions and situations, and the only way to plan for it is to take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, strengthen YOUR support network, and do things that make you feel happy so that when the emotions come they won't put you in a downward spiral.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 8:12 AM on November 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

My undergraduate mentor died very suddenly during my senior year of college. It was devastating, and though I still think of him often, it is no longer devastating. At this point I would love to review old emails, if I had them. You might put them aside for such a time. I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by judith at 10:30 AM on November 1, 2014

Write letters to her. Ask about questions you think she'd have interesting answers to, tell a little about your life and your feelings. I just wrote a whole bunch of letters like this to my late mentor who died suddenly, and they were good for getting a lot of thoughts straight.
posted by ActionPopulated at 4:50 PM on November 1, 2014

Regarding the e-mail: how about downloading it, or turning it into a .pdf, and putting it on a flash drive? Even if you don't read through it, or end up reading through it online, it might be nice to make it tangible.
posted by MrBobinski at 6:07 PM on November 1, 2014

Yeah, I would print out the emails (maybe have them bound in a book you can keep?) or save them in some separate way so that, in later years, when you have a fit of missing her you can look back through them. If you were to lose the emails after having lost her, I think that would initiate a grieving process of its own.

Regarding catharsis for the grief: the traditional way of doing this is to make, create or do something as a memorial. It doesn't necessarily have to be seen by anyone else (though it can be). The sort of letter ActionPopulated suggests would be one way of doing this. Or you could resolve to do something worthy of her: accomplish some specific thing in the field she mentored you in, take up some unfinished bit of research of hers, bring an idea she gave you to some kind of fruition. Or if she had a favourite charity, maybe do something for them.

I hope this helps a little. I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:26 AM on November 2, 2014

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