Student View: “The Power of ‘No’”

"After so many agonizing months, I finally found myself at a place where I had the freedom to refuse."
By Camron King

Welcome to “Student View,” a new column featuring the thoughts, opinions, and musings of undergraduate writers at Cal. This spring, for our inaugural “Student View” essay contest, California asked current Cal students to answer the question: How has the pandemic changed you? Below is one of two runners-up. This issue’s winning essay was “The Seasons Still Change” by Annabelle Long, and the other runner-up was “Sunsets and Little Things” by Shreya Ramesh. For entry rules and other winners, visit the contest landing page.

I started this pandemic a griever.

As COVID-19 began its global encroachment in early 2020, I was already navigating the aftermath of a personal devastation—the suicide of a close friend. The tragedy left me untethered, completely adrift in a nebulous sea of loss. I soon learned that dealing with grief is a process, and this realization that mourning takes time triggered panic.

Often my calendar is a multicolored mosaic of classes, meetings, and work commitments. Sometimes even being able to take a moment to shower feels like a temporal miracle. After my friend’s death I began wondering: In the frantic juggling of a hectic life, how was I supposed to find time to mourn? Saying no to my commitments in order to say yes to self-care was not a skill I had fully cultivated. At the time, saying “no” was an anxiety-inducing experience that left a bad taste in my mouth. Since I struggled with the word “no” and mourning couldn’t write term papers or schedule extracurricular events, I learned how to tamp down my grief so I could keep up with the busy-ness.

Using compartmentalization as a mechanism for completing tasks propelled me through my academic and work life, but, having no time for personal upkeep and tending to my trauma, my psyche suffered. My inability to create the boundaries necessary to work through my friend’s death further exacerbated the pain caused by such a cataclysmic loss.

As I wrestled in the throes of grief, unsure of what to do, the pandemic hit and the world escalated into entropy. Suddenly the term “social distancing” had entered the global vernacular, and people were sequestered in their homes, living a predominantly online, Zoom-mediated existence. The ways in which people operate were completely reconstructed in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and with this shift came as a relief for me.

Watching those around me prioritize the health and safety of their communities gave me the reassurance I needed to prioritize my own health, both physically and emotionally. After so many agonizing months I found myself in the midst of a worldwide catastrophe, finally at a place in my grief journey where I felt like I had the freedom to refuse.

I am still learning how to accommodate my grief, which means creating boundaries with the powerful tool of “no.” Every “no” is an opportunity for me to utter a more meaningful “yes”—yes to grief group, yes to taking a moment to cry, yes to eight hours of restful, restorative sleep, and yes to healing and personal growth. I entered this pandemic carrying the great heaviness of grief, and as we emerge from the ruins of COVID-19, I will leave the pandemic carrying grief, but with the new and necessary skills that make my load a little lighter.

Camron King is a current social welfare and art practice double major at UC Berkeley and a soon to be art therapist-in-training at NYU.

From the Summer 2021 issue of California.
Image source: iStock
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