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Is it okay to cry?

| Thursday, April 2, 2020

I struggled to come up with words or even a comprehensive topic for a column this week — there is too much to say. 

Originally, I planned to write about the challenges of collective action and dealing with feelings of anger and fear towards something uncontrollable, like a virus. Then, I thought I would write about the 17-year-old from Los Angeles who died last week because he was turned away from urgent care for being uninsured, or maybe about the fact that people who recover from hospitalization associated with COVID-19 are facing an average of $10,000 in medical bills. Finally, I wanted to write about the values of human decency and kindness in these challenging times, possibly as a plea to those in my generation to take this seriously and do our part by staying home. 

And then it again felt like all too much. If I could describe these past few weeks, it would be characterized by a feeling of overwhelming. Just overwhelming. Not overwhelming anything in particular because there’s too much: overwhelming stress, fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, gratitude and hope. I am sure most people reading this column would characterize their past few weeks or days in a similar way. 

So, I had gotten a couple of paragraphs into a column on health insurance and our broken system when I received the email from Fr. Jenkins announcing that May graduation would be held virtually and we could anticipate some sort of reunion Memorial Day 2021. And I cried. 

I know graduation is the least of our concerns at this point. It really, truly is. People are dying, we don’t have enough tests or respirators, the curve is only increasing instead of flattening — but I still cried. 

And I guess I’m trying to figure out if that’s a valid reaction. 

How do we reconcile these overwhelming feelings of sadness and disappointment with our place of privilege in the midst of a global crisis? I don’t know the answer, but I can feel that tension. Every time I have begun to lose hope or maybe even cry, I can’t help but think about the people who have lost loved ones, who are unemployed, homeless, working on the front lines of this pandemic as a health care professional or as an employee at an essential business. 

Am I a bad person for crying over the 20 seconds I would have had to walk across the stage at graduation? 

I don’t think so. 

It’s not like we didn’t know our health care system was broken or that non-salaried employees were undervalued in society. We knew all of those things. Most of my columns in the past have been expressing my anger at certain aspects of the status quo. But we also had good things to look forward to and other aspects of our society and ourselves that we could celebrate. And now it feels like a lot of those things have disappeared in a matter of days. 

Sadness over the loss of memories to be made is a privilege when others are risking their lives or losing family members, but I’ve also realized that doesn’t make the sadness go away. We can experience feelings of sadness and disappointment while also feeling deep gratitude for others and acknowledging our privilege in this crisis at the same time. 

As a class, we had heard for years about all of those graduation traditions we would get to partake in: walking down the Main Building steps, stepping onto God Quad, our last class trip to the Grotto and celebrations with friends and family. We left campus with every expectation to come back and finish out the semester together. Now, I don’t know if I will see some of my closest friends, the true heart of the Notre Dame experience, until Memorial Day 2021. 

Commencement wasn’t just for the members of the class of 2020. It was also for our family members, friends, parents, mentors and professors who provided indescribable support that got us to the place we are today. It’s not that I probably won’t get the chance to walk across the graduation stage and receive my diploma, which causes me the greatest sadness, but the fact that my parents won’t get to see that. We didn’t just want to graduate for ourselves — this commencement meant a lot of things to a lot of people. 

We need a place for these emotions to be experienced in tandem. I have been greatly angered reading comments from several alumni and Notre Dame family members essentially telling seniors to get over it and move on. In one sense, they’re right. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, and the preservation of human life should be prioritized above all else. But cut us some slack. 

The only reaction I have experienced from members of my class is a mixture of understanding and sadness. Of course, we all expected commencement to be canceled or at the very least postponed. We understand why Fr. Jenkins felt the need to make that decision. But that doesn’t make it suck any less. 

As we navigate these turbulent times together, while apart, I guess the answer I have come to is that having an emotional response is valid, all while recognizing the great privilege many of us have in staying safe at home. 

Crying over a commencement may seem frivolous given the circumstances, but these are unprecedented times and not a whole lot makes sense anyways.

Jackie O’Brien is a Notre Dame senior studying political science and peace studies, originally from the Chicago suburbs. When she’s not writing for Viewpoint, you can find her attempting to complete the NYT crossword, fretting over law school applications or watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. She can be reached at [email protected] or @im_jackie_o on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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