Recovering from the death of his best friend showed Zac Bears the importance of circumstance and privilege in every person’s life.
(Originally published on DailyCollegian.com)
Nine months ago tomorrow, I awoke into my worst nightmare – the worst news I had ever imagined hearing. My best friend had died.
Her death is now a defining event in my life. I could not picture life without her once. In the intervening months, I have barely pictured life at all. The day of her death, I had plans and goals for my senior year and career. The day after her death, I didn’t have goals for the next six hours. I have regained some semblance of control over my emotions and my life, but I still wake up some days with no passion for existence in a town and at a university where no matter the place, a memory we shared together lingers. Those lingering memories have slowly become less painful. Now I try to focus on positive remembrance, but some days it’s very hard.
Perhaps the most important lesson my time at the University of Massachusetts has taught me is how we are all shaped by the circumstances of our lives, events and characteristics entirely out of our control.
This academic year has been by far my most difficult. I have missed classes, been late on assignments and procrastinated everything. But I haven’t received failing grades or notice that my performance will prevent me from getting a degree. In fact, my circumstantial advantages – white skin, a male body, heteronormative presentation and privileged understanding of University bureaucracy – provided more support than I ever expected.
Last fall, the Dean of Students Office reached out to me to see if there was anything they could do to help me. They reached out to my professors and told them about the situation, requesting that they provide “support and assistance.” I wouldn’t have been able to stay at UMass without that support, and I am grateful for it.
But many people who knew Hannah Frilot did not have the same experience, and they have had much more arduous journeys dealing with missed assignments, less-than-stellar grades, and professors, administrators and peers who did not understand the injury for which they were in recovery.
“Injury” never described the experience of grief, chronic stress or trauma before this past year, but the effects on mental health are the same as any physical injury’s effect on the body. One must recover from a debilitation of the mind that does not abate magically but requires fortitude and courage to confront fears that feel easier to avoid. It took me months to realize that avoiding my fears – which had shifted from writing my thesis to just walking into a classroom, going to work or hanging out with my friends – meant that I would never be the person I was before and deeply wanted to be again. Confronting the reality that my existence is independent from Hannah’s, and that I could again embody the confidence and passion I had when she was alive, subconsciously drove my seclusion.
But even under these tragic conditions, my experience with stress, grief and trauma-related mental illness occurred in isolation, based on a single event that new acquaintances would not know about. My experience has occurred from a position of privilege. I controlled access to knowledge of my struggle. So many people in this country and on this campus are not as lucky.
I will never understand what it means to be a person of color, a woman, transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual, gender non-conforming, disabled or any other description that puts me outside of society’s norm. The stress that comes from ever-present and overwhelming anti-black, anti-woman, anti-LGBT, anti-disability and “pro-normal” forces in our society can be just as debilitating as the loss of a loved one. I faced a single event that undercut my self-worth and the value of my existence. Marginalized and socially devalued people have a mile-long list of traumatic events that have the same existential effects. I’ve spent months trying to deal with one. I will never understand what it means to have the validity of my existence questioned every day. And where I received institutional support at every turn, people who have to deal with trauma and hatred on a daily basis don’t have that safety net.
I was listening to BBC Radio over the weekend, and one guest criticized “people who can’t realize how lucky they are.” Even in the face of unexpected and painful tragedy, I am very, very lucky. I was born into a stable family, went to good schools, got into a good college and have had internships and jobs that have fulfilled lifelong dreams and positioned me for future success.
My columns have been cited in The Boston Globe. New England Public Radio and the Daily Hampshire Gazette have interviewed me to provide student perspective on important issues. Tens of thousands of readers have read my views on national and state politics. And I’ve had three years filled with great teachers, peers and friends. Outside of the Collegian, I have had the best boss in the world at Commonwealth Honors College. She has taught me so much about writing, management, teamwork and, while I may not always heed her advice, brevity. My professors and classes have been exceptional. I didn’t know what economics was when I came to UMass, but I may be an economist at the Department of Labor after I leave.
The real highlights, though, are the wonderful people I met every single day at UMass. On my first day, I met my best friend, and I never stopped meeting impressive and amazing people who have given me so much, from the support I needed to get through this year to knowledge of what it means to be a woman, or queer or a person of color in a much more intimate and personal way than can ever be taught in a classroom.
While I may always feel a twinge of pain from the scar of a terrible injury when I think about UMass, I have gained a lot more than I lost in my time here. I have even gained from my loss.
UMass taught me that no matter who we are, we are products of circumstance, and that will live with me forever.
Zac Bears can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.