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  • What Might We Learn From Heartache?Loss, Loneliness, and Pedagogy
  • Rachel Alpha Johnston Hurst (bio)

This essay traverses back and forth across the institutionally-imposed boundary between storytelling and critical reflection to explore how my thinking about feminist pedagogical praxis has been irrevocably altered by the experience of losing a parent as well as facilitating mutual support groups for young adults whose parents or siblings have died. I am documenting a piece of my growth as a learning teacher over the 2006–7 academic year. I have taught first-year university students in a tutorial setting for the past five years as a master of arts student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, and as a PhD candidate at York University in Toronto, Ontario. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are all in women's studies, and I have taught within my home discipline, Social Science and Fine Arts Cultural Studies. I begin by spinning a yarn that twists together the loss of my father, teaching first year students, and facilitating a mutual support group for the first time. I reflect upon how we carry our loss histories with us into the classroom: this loss could be death, but it is more multifarious than that. This is loss in its broadest sense. Loss amplifies the effects we feel when we are perceived in clichéd and discriminatory ways, so it is fundamental to acknowledge its presence in the classroom. What do we do with this loss? How can we respond to it? Theorizing the importance of loneliness in education is a helpful starting point to begin thinking about these critical questions. Finally, I conclude by discussing the transformative impact that my facilitating and teaching have had upon each other, and upon how I live with, and invite warmly though sorrowfully, the loss and grief of myself and others whenever I am capable of doing so. Denying the existence of loss bars an opportunity that we have to recognize and work with the loneliness engendered by learning and death. This reflection has taken me all the way back to the almost impossible-to-write final paper about loneliness and education for the first course I took during my PhD coursework, the same semester that my father was diagnosed with cancer for the second and final time. This essay returns to Deborah Britzman's pedagogy and psychoanalytic theory course at York University, which marked a pivotal moment in my academic career and in my life. This course made me [End Page 31] think deeply about the links between loss, loneliness, and education and over the past four years compelled me to critically reevaluate and eventually give up some of the theories I had been working with in response to learning about psychoanalytic insights into gender. This course seeps into the grain of the paper on which this essay is written. I am profoundly indebted to this experience, and am grateful for the opportunity to revisit it here.

Our Stories Mix Together, Like Oil and Water

Just over five years ago, my father died and the floor of my life collapsed beneath my feet; I've been falling ever since. I've come to see my work as a bit like Alice's as she tumbles down the hole of the eleventh-hour rabbit: to pull myself upright when I can, so I can ask and answer questions and have conversations with those who are falling too, and to yield sometimes to the empty falling. Losing a parent as a young adult separates you from most of your peers because you have to work even harder than usual to tolerate each other's presence, which is often too much work for both the grieving person as well as the person who has not yet lost a parent. Almost a year after my dad died, I joined a bereavement group that was organized on a mutual support model. We met every week for ten weeks in a room with a fan that sounded exactly like the fan in the hospital room where my dad died. We released a little of our anger, sadness, and memory through silence, tears, and talk: the almost ineffable...