Nex Benedict was a Two-Spirit, transgender teen who was attacked in their school bathroom in Oklahoma after being forced to use the bathroom that aligned with their gender assigned at birth. Benedict’s Indigenous heritage is not mentioned in a lot of the articles about them, but they were Choctaw (from the Cherokee Nation reservation) and Two Spirit. Oklahoma’s laws restricting transgender rights — one of which prohibits students from using bathrooms that “do not align with their sex at birth” — likely catalyzed the attack. They were 16 years old.

When I heard of their death, it was my 20th birthday. 

My experience with being transgender sometimes feels like it is rooted in mourning. It feels like I’ve been grieving since I could describe my experience with gender, a transgender experience, an experience that I’m acutely aware is different. My grief towards this situation had me asking myself, “Why do I get to live past 16, and so many transgender kids don’t?”

There are new law proposals in my home province, Alberta, restricting transgender rights on the basis of “concern.” This proposed legislation includes outing transgender kids to their parents if they want to use different names or pronouns in school, allowing parents to “opt out” of lessons regarding gender identity in the classroom, banning transgender women from competing in women’s sports, and restricting gender-affirming care. In addition, they are trying to restrict puberty blockers and hormone therapy for individuals under 15 — which, by the way, have been used to stop early puberty for nontransgender kids for years.

How can deciding gender identity and gender-affirming care be an adult issue if they won’t let us live into adulthood?

I find myself grieving often. I find myself asking how many people I’d want at my funeral if something were to happen to me. I find myself asking, “What makes me so much better — that I get to live?” Why should I have to become an expert on statistics in order to prove that transgender people deserve to live?

There’s especially a lot of grieving as students when it comes to encountering deaths and the grieving of our childhoods.

I find myself often grieving the childhood I never had because of my constant desire to have been born a boy. I find myself grieving the relationships of family members I can no longer have for my own mental health, and the deaths of individuals who are all the way across the globe. I understand that there are a lot of students in my shoes, too, experiencing some form of grieving. 

So, how do we deal with grief as students?

Honestly? I don’t fully know. But here’s a few things I can say about my personal experience with grieving as a student.

Don’t suppress your feelings; address them right away.

I often find myself suppressing my feelings by working on schoolwork. I love school, and I enjoy studying, but it can turn into an unhealthy way to cope for me. My advice for dealing with grief of any kind is to not suppress your feelings. Address them by journaling, sitting down and doing some self-reflection, or even just by speaking your feelings out loud to yourself or a friend who is emotionally able to be there for you. Suppressing your feelings might feel like the best course of action, but as a student, this could lead to burnout by draining you and leading to emotional outbursts. With that being said, here is my next advice:

Find healthy ways to cope.

Healthy coping mechanisms can look like journalling, listening to music, watching a show or movie to distract yourself, eating ice cream and crying, making art about your grief, going outside on a walk, and more. 

Unhealthy coping mechanisms can include self-harm, substance abuse, suppressing emotions, becoming a “workaholic,” pushing people away, and disordered eating. It’s often easy to fall into unhealthy coping mechanisms as a student trying to grieve and keep up with schoolwork. Still, I promise you grief will hurt more than continuing to hurt yourself by partaking in unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Reach out for help when you can.

If you find yourself partaking in unhealthy coping mechanisms, you might want to reach out to recourses that might help you, such as on-campus counselling resources, Third Space counselling, Canada Help Phone, and many more. You might also want to talk to a trusted friend or family member who will be there for you. It’s okay to reach out for help in times of crisis and when grief becomes unmanageable. On some days, grief might feel worse than others — it’s a constantly moving idea. Sometimes, it may feel like you’re “done” with your grief, but the next day it could feel unbearable. It is important to reach out to other people when needed.

Turn off the news, but stay educated.

Almost constantly, I find myself scrolling through the news and reading about hate crimes and anti-transgender bills being proposed — and this has negative implications for my mental health. 

It is an expression of privilege to be able to turn off the news and close your phone when witnessing violence when those individuals on the other side of the screen are unable to do so. However, in order to not harm your own mental health or become desensitized, often it is good practice to take a moment to reflect on what you’ve been reading and witnessing. For example, individuals from minority groups constantly witnessing their community experiencing damage can cause greater issues in mental health crises. When things get too heavy, you deserve to take a step back. However, keeping true to the idea of acknowledging your different forms of systemic privileges or disadvantages — also known as intersectionality: just because you close a news webpage does not mean that violence isn’t happening and that you get to stop educating yourself, especially when it comes to the violence that many minorities face.

Finally, take action.

This is the most important part, particularly when it comes to experiencing political grief. If you find yourself grieving the deaths of individuals from a community you are not part of, then take action. Go to protests, call your local political representatives, call the Prime Minister, send letters to officials, and do everything in your power. Use your grief for something productive. If you are sharing experiences of grief with others, you can also take action this way. 

It’s important to note that for individuals who are grieving members of their own communities, it is often emotionally exhausting for them to educate others, so I encourage everyone to research ways to get involved.