Monthly Archives: March 2019

Picture of wooded landscape, trees without leaves, and a sunny but cloudy blue sky.

The hope of spring

Today is the first day of spring.

Personally, my favorite season is summer, but I have an appreciation for spring. With it comes hints of sunshine and heat, alongside occasional reminders of the winter you’re trying to leave behind.

It seems almost poetic to me that the trajectory of grief following the death of my mother has followed the changing of seasons. They appear so closely related that I can’t tell which is more true: has my grief mirrored the changing of the seasons, or has the harshness of this year’s winter made my grief that much more severe?

It’s impossible for me to discern that right now. But in case there is someone out there going through something similar and happens to stumble upon my writing, I hope my transparency can help shed some light on what is to come.

I’ve never dealt with depression before, but after the start of the new year I figured out that things were not good. Sadness is normal and expected after the death of someone close, but this was a powerful force that I hadn’t experienced before. In an earlier post, I wrote:

The worst was around the three-month mark. January 12 was a very low day for me. It was emotionally debilitating, and when it hit me it really came out of nowhere. There was a point that day when I took a shower and laid down in the tub. I didn’t have the energy to stand. I felt so broken. I cried so much. And the strangest thing is I can’t fully explain why. I suppose that was simply the day my mind chose to grieve, and my body was forced to submit.

Shortly after that, I start seeing a counselor. When I called to set up the appointment, the counselor asked me why I felt like I needed help. I explained that my mother had died, and that had reached a point where I simply did not care about anything. However, I had done some research online and I didn’t think I had enough of the symptoms of having depression.

At my first appointment, I answered some questions. The counselor said without hesitation, “You’re depressed. We have a lot of work to do.”

I have been working on me, and I have some good help. My wife, Amy, has been fantastic. There have been many times in the past few months where she’s said to me, “How can I support you?” This has been an immense help. If you’re going through anything like this, find some support and let others help you. I’m not real good at asking for help when I need it, but I’m learning.

This experience has really highlighted to me the state of mental health in the United States. Of course, the counselor I picked doesn’t take insurance, so I’m paying for all of this out of pocket. That’s fine, because I get along well with the counselor I chose, and the whole experience has set me on a better path. But really, what year is this? It should be easier and more affordable to get help with mental health issues than it is.

It’s also shown me that those closest to you — friends, co-workers, people who rely on you for stability — might not fully understand how to interact with you during a time of grieving. I’ll probably write more on this in the future as a guidebook of sorts of how to help someone who has been burdened by the pain of loss. I will say that death in the modern age is a strange thing. Social media can be haunting, and the digital artifacts of someone you’ve lost can be especially triggering. These are tricky waters to navigate.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how many people who have been a part of my life in some way who have died, many within recent memory. In the last year I can think of a girl I grew up with in my hometown, the dad of my childhood friend, the guy that owned the hardware store back home, the woman I worked with when I worked at Toys R Us in my college days, a mentor, and of course, mom.

Sometimes it feels like death is all around me. I suppose it is for all of us, but now I’m more susceptible to its presence.

That’s not to say I’m in despair. In fact, I have hope, and it’s nice to have it back.

This is a fairly recent change. It took about four-and-a-half months before things started to turn better, around the beginning of March. I wasn’t as sad anymore. There has been a level of acceptance that has come over me about mom’s death that has enabled a bit of peace that’s been missing since October. I started noticing it when I had some really good laughs at work. My co-worker made me laugh to the point where I was in tears, and then things started moving up from there.

That’s not to say that I’m all sunshine and roses. In the last few weeks I had a couple of really strong moments where I really wanted to talk to mom. One night, I sat at the dinner table and the tears just started coming. I don’t know what triggered it; the tears just came out. I had my moment, it passed, and then I got back to eating my food.

And that’s how all this has worked to this point.

I am so heartbroken now when I hear about someone who is experiencing loss. A friend of mine posted about the unexpected death of his young friend, and my heart sank. A co-worker was telling me about the death of his beloved dog, and I instantly felt so much compassion for him. Another co-worker also lost her mom unexpectedly; my empathy for her runs deep.

I miss my mom.

And yet, there are new lessons being learned here which I admit, I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. The food that I enjoy tastes better than it did before. The sun on my face feels even more spectacular than it did before October. The laughter and silliness of my children are a greater blessing than I have experienced to date.

Here is the lesson I’m starting to absorb: death can be a powerful teacher, if you allow it. I’m so glad that spring is here. The earth is muddy, the rains are cool, and the winds are ever shifting. I am eager to see what grows from this season I am in.

Eric J Gruber standing to the right of Mr. Richard Massa.

Death of a mentor

When I was nearing the end of my college education, I was searching for the next steps in my journey. I was working for a newspaper in Joplin, Mo. My position was almost like a contractor. I had full-time hours but didn’t have benefits (namely, health insurance). My parents, who were both nurses, had drilled into me one important lesson: always have health insurance.

I was seeking guidance. My search led me to the house of a retired professor — Mr. Richard Massa, who was also the founder of the communications department where I was finishing college — who gave me a suggestion.

“You should look into the Lawrence Journal-World,” he told me.

Massa talked up the Journal-World with great praise. He said it was a fine paper, and it was doing interesting things. I should check them out.

I didn’t even know where Lawrence, Kan., was. I found LJWorld’s website, found an email address, and sent off an inquiry, which said something along the lines of, “Are you looking for any newbie journalists?” I got a phone call. They didn’t have anything at LJWorld, but the paper had just purchased two small newspapers outside Lawrence, Kan. — in Eudora and De Soto — and they were building a team. They asked if I could come up for an interview.

Those were different times in the publishing world. I made the three-hour trip from Joplin for an interview, and they put me up in a hotel for the night, took me out to dinner with the editor and the publisher, and told me to stop back by the office before I headed back to Joplin. I worked from around 4 to 11 p.m. at The Globe, and by the time I got back to the office I would need to get to work.

Little did I know, that by the time I had returned to Joplin, the fine people at LJWorld had called The Globe to check my references. I found this out because as I started my shift, my editor, Gary, wanted to talk to me. It turned out they were now ready to offer me some benefits.

“Does this have anything to do with my trip to Lawrence,” I asked? “Yes,” Gary said.

I knew right at that moment: I was going to move to Lawrence.

I grew up in a very small Kanas town the same size as Eudora and De Soto. The area where I grew up is filled with wonderful, loving people who seem to have known each other forever, at least with some passing association. There’s a beauty in a small town that you don’t often find in a bigger city, something that I struggle to articulate well for those who haven’t experienced that life. As a small example, let’s just say that when your mother dies, the community mourns with you. They stop by and bring comfort food. They offer their embrace for grieving. They are sad not only for you, but with you.

And because of this one man’s suggestion, I left all I knew in search a new adventure for myself.

Massa.

I was never a pupil of Massa while he taught at Missouri Southern State University. However, he played a role in an international media seminar where communications students went to Paris, France for a week. He also helped coordinate a trip where I and two other students went to Central America for two weeks before my senior year began. While there, we covered stories about Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Massa, along with and Dr. Chad Stebbins, Director of the Institute of International Studies at my alma mater, were instrumental in me seeing parts and people of the world that I may have never had the chance to see otherwise.

I got to know Mr. Massa (as he was most well known by those he was befriended, and simply “Massa” if you really cared about him), through one of my fellow students, Aaron Deslatte. Aaron was a brilliant writer, and loved to visit Massa. I loved hanging out with Aaron, and by default got to know Massa through frequent visits. Massa always welcomed us, and he and his wife, Teresa, gladly let students past and present drop in and chat away. The discussions about world events, politics and policy were always fascinating. Those discussions made me want to learn more.

Massa died Sunday, March 17, 2019.

Even after my move away from home, I didn’t stop learning from him. I would stop by on occasion, as many other students did, and catch up with him and his wife. Eventually, I got married, and then introduced my wife, Amy, to him. Massa made mention that my move from Joplin led me to my wife. He fully believed that me meeting Amy — not any career move — was my great achievement from that life change. He wasn’t wrong.

Not long ago I messaged him with a question I had been posting online. I was looking for his answer to the question, “Regardless of your age now, what advice would you give your 40-year-old self?”

“Go for it!” he replied, “The wisest decision I ever made was at the age of 40. I decided to marry Teresa and to find a job at MSSU. I had other options — some sounding much better, some making more money, but I had grown weary of change and uncertainty and I needed security and purpose.”

I must admit, right now, as I write this, I’m a little dumbstruck at something I have missed for years. When I sought out his advice about what to do those many years ago, Massa didn’t suggest I try and beg and plead with my employer to give me some health insurance. He didn’t tell me to wait it out and hope things would change.

No, Massa suggested I go out and choose a new adventure, and see what happens. Even all those years ago, he was suggesting I “go for it.”

My mind is blown. Hot damn.

Amy once asked me, “What was Mr. Massa? Was he your teacher?” I told her that I often referred to him as my mentor. While I stick with that assessment, I now realize it’s not the full truth. I was not his classroom pupil, but I was most certainly his student.

The teacher has given me the lesson, and the lesson is this: life is yours to embrace, so go for it!

Farewell, sir.

Mr. Richard Massa and Eric J Gruber.

Farewell, Massa. Farewell, good sir.

And …