There should be a German word for this.

I already mentioned that I wasn’t feeling well over the weekend, but it ended up going way beyond that. There was an accumulation of episodes of melancholia that all seem to fall under the same general category, a category I am just making up that seems like it should be a German word because they have those weirdly specific words for emotional states-of-being. Something that would encompass “heartbroken compassion for the sorrows and ignorance and naivete of yourself (and others) in the same position at some particularly poignant time in your life (and our collective lives).”

I know: it’s a mouthful. It’s probably too much to ask of a language. And even if it weren’t, I did not get much farther than memorizing “eins, zwei, drei. . . .” in the rapid reading and translation class which was so miserable for me (and yet, which represented, proportionally, a quite marginal sliver of the overall misery of my graduate school experience). But anyway. Here are some examples.

About this time last week, I was working on the KidsOutAndAbout summer camps newsletter that we put out each year in March. In the process, I kept encountering the subject line that we’d chosen for March 2020: “What can you do? You can plan for camp.” Honestly, it felt like an excellent subject line at the time. Things were uncertain, activities were canceled, folks were unhappy, and looking ahead to a more pleasant future seemed like a good idea. Except, of course, most summer camp plans ended up not actually happening. Do you remember in March, when we vaguely expected that things would surely be resolved by the summer, once everyone took COVID seriously and pulled together? I was an early worrier about the pandemic, but as work things got canceled in March and early April, I remember thinking that many would be rescheduled within a couple of months. Do you remember how, way-back-when, when people said, 100,000 Americans could die of this? We believed it, in theory, and yet there was that part of our brains that could not accept it as reality, and of course, most of us couldn’t anticipate how much of an under count that figure would end up being. So, each time I encountered that old subject line, it was a little shiver of melancholy, a reminder of misplaced optimism and all that we’ve lost since.

During the week, a post on social media declared that middle school girls are mean, and that it’s usually because of their mean, mean mothers. And then everyone was basically agreeing about how awful middle school girls are, and I know that everyone was trying to be supportive of this parent who clearly has a child who’s getting bullied or left out, and I know that there are mean kids who are often spawned from mean parents. I’ve had a couple of crazy mean mother-daughter experiences. But the whole thread just made me sad. Partly because I know so many middle school girls who are spectacular, wonderful, and kind–not just my kids and their friends, but many middle school girls I’ve met through volunteering–and I feel like they’re being slandered. And it all just felt vehemently anti-feminist. While my daughters were in late elementary school, middle school, and high school, I spent a lot of time fretting about whether they were mean girls, because I don’t know exactly what’s happening at lunch or what’s happening between them. Even if your kids talk to you, and that’s a big if, they can only offer their own perspective. Plus, it’s just murky, because kids going through adolescence have very different ideas of what friend relationships are supposed to be like, and they mature at different rates, and the whole thing is treacherous. The more I think about it, the more it feels like its own post. But the point is, every time I saw this post, it made me sad, not just for the girl who’s currently getting bullied, but wondering what’s happening with the bully, and if that kid’s mom is mean or oblivious, and hating that so many people will write off a category of all girls as evil, even if it’s coming from a desire to support each other, or from a place of long-ago adolescent pain or mama bear protectiveness. It just made me feel [insert non-existent German word here].

At the end of the week, I had an exceptionally weird conversation with someone I’ve known my whole life. Do you ever have conversations where you feel like you need to immediately book a therapist in order to parse and process it? Well, honestly, I hardly ever do, but that sure was one. There were a lot of topics covered that I could totally spin out on, but one item that came up was this person talking about how she remembered visiting me shortly after my mother died — she died when I was preschool age — and that I cried myself to sleep every night. I didn’t remember anything about the visit because I’ve pretty much blocked out some big swathes of time. I certainly didn’t remember crying myself to sleep every night. But that night I was in bed feeling awful, wondering what proportion of the awfulness was my immune system kicking into high gear post vaccine and what proportion was just feeling emotionally slammed. Like I had a sudden pinhole view into this mournful time period, and I was seeing myself from a distance. I was thinking like a mom, feeling so sad for that little kid who looked so much like my little J looked at that age (though not quite as cute) whom I couldn’t help. It was just so [insert non-existent German word here].

And finally, on Saturday we learned that one of J’s classmates, a girl in her grade, died by suicide. Which is so awful. Awful for this girl, for her family, for her friends, for everyone in the community. It feels like so many people are just barely clinging on, and it’s too many kids, too much — you’re worried about this person, here, and that other person is quietly drowning, and you just don’t know. And so what do you do? Every response just feels not quite right, which is because there’s no perfect response to something terrible. I see the school district trying, but at the same time I know that recently a parent reached out to both high school psychologists looking for help with their kid and there wasn’t any response for over a month. Meanwhile, 4th quarter has started and teachers are entering grades into the Parent Portal, and this has always been a pet peeve of mine, because if your first grade is terrible, it looks like your quarter grade is terrible. So it’s entirely possible for a straight A kid who has one late assignment to have an F in their Parent Portal at the moment, not to mention the kids who are always struggling with grades. But you’d just think maybe someone from the administration might say, “Hmm, I wonder if we don’t want to pile on by entering failing grades on to the record of kids who might be a little thrown off their game because of the death of a classmate. Because things feel precarious right now, and we don’t want to tip anyone over the edge.” If anyone did say that, no one fixed it. [UPDATE: They actually did fix this since I first wrote this, or sort of. They extended the quarter. Still, J reports that one of her classes became a session in which the students complained, mostly that it felt like the school’s reactions were more to show parents that they were addressing it than to actually address it, and that they can’t expect students to want to go to counseling sessions when they haven’t built trusted relationships with their counselors.] And yet the school is likely busy doing triage on all sorts of stuff we don’t know about, so you can’t even get all that angry (or I can’t, anyway). I remember that on one of the girls’ middle school moving up days I was in the principal’s office at 7:30 am to show him information about a student getting sexually assaulted so that he could get the social workers or whoever to start investigating. And then later someone complained about his moving up day speech and I thought to myself, “Yeah, that dude is probably exhausted.”

But also, there are social media posts of lovely and well-meaning people saying, “Talk to your kids, check in with your kids.” I mean, haven’t we all been trying? These are hard times. Kids don’t always tell us stuff. I’m sure this family did what they could. You can ask and you won’t always get the full story. I mean, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, but I just keep imagining parents who are struggling right now or parents who have lost a child seeing these morsels of advice and thinking that they feel judged, that they’d do anything to change how things happened, that they would have done anything if they knew then what they know now. It is just heartbreaking, and it’s terrifying, because we know it can happen again. Cute W and I have both lost people we cared about to suicide, and while J wasn’t friends with her classmate, she’s a friend of friends who are very sad. So it’s been a little weepy at our house. Also, J and I are coping via some houseplant-acquisition therapy. We are trying to dispel the [German word] by amping up our collection of cheerful Zimmerpflanze.

Wishing you all wellness and vaccine appointments if you need them. I’ll try to be more cheerful next time.

3 Comments

  1. Claire

    Oh my gosh Katie, I’m so sorry. How tragic. Even if your daughter wasn’t close friends with the girl, I’m sure it’s still heartbreaking for her. And I’m so sorry for what you went through losing your mother at such a young age. Even if you can’t remember everything about what you experienced at the time, I’m sorry for the pain you experienced when it happened and the pain that I’m sure still persists to this day. Life is a b—- sometimes.

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