The first day my school moved to remote learning in March of 2020, my grandfather died. We had just heard about this new virus called COVID-19, and we thought we would be out for a couple of weeks until spring break, then go back to school as usual.
My grandfather had been dealing with a failing heart. I knew he was getting weaker, but his doctors thought he would make it through the summer. That didn’t go as planned either.
I was in remote history class when my mom told me that my grandpa had deteriorated overnight. I logged off of Zoom, got in the car with my mom, and as my grandpa hovered between life and death, I talked to him, held his hand, and waited. By evening, he was gone.
I should mention that my grandfather wasn’t just my grandfather. Because I don’t have a dad, he was also the closest thing I had to a father figure in my life. We used to play basketball together, go to Lakers games, and take trips down the coast where we would play at the beach all day and stay up way past my bedtime at night. When he got sick, we could still play chess, make silly jokes, and yell like crazy at the games from the couch instead of from our nosebleed stadium seats. We talked almost daily about things that might have seemed like nothing, but felt to me like everything.
After his death, I was overwhelmed with sadness—but so was everyone else. The entire world was shutting down, and every headline that wasn’t about masks or sanitizers or the number of coronavirus cases was about mental health–especially for teens.
Parents were told: Talk to your teenagers about what they’re feeling. Teens were told: Talk to adults about what you’re going through.
But like many boys, I wasn’t sure that message was for me.
“I’m so sorry about your grandpa,” people would say on FaceTime. “And during COVID, too!”
“Yeah,” I’d say, trying to keep my voice from cracking. “I miss him so much. And I can’t see my friends.”
“I know,” they’d say. “But you just have to be strong!”
I heard the word “strong” so many times during those months, whether it was in response to feeling isolated from quarantine, starting high school on Zoom, or adjusting to life without my grandfather. “You’re strong!” they’d say, thinking it would reassure me, but instead it just made me feel like something was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I “just be strong”?
Throughout the summer, the media continued to tell parents and teachers to pay attention to young people’s mental health. But all I saw was a paradox. I started to think about the many ways boys are told to “be strong.” We’re told not to be scared (even when something is scary), not to cry (even when something is sad), not to let things bother us (even when something is bothersome). If we do, we might get called “a girl” which is both inaccurate and sexist (as if girls are somehow weaker for saying how they feel).
But this wasn’t just about the pandemic. From a young age, boys are taught to be stoic and “brush it off” (even if we have a hard fall on the basketball court). We’re told don’t think about it, don’t worry about it, and, above all, don’t talk about it. The one socially acceptable feeling we can have? Anger. But not too much, because then we’re considered too aggressive.
COVID made many people reevaluate their lives, and I started to reevaluate mine too. Did grieving my grandfather’s death, or feeling sad in isolation, really make me less strong? I started wondering what “strong” really was. Wasn’t being able to face my feelings a sign of strength? Isn’t it braver to speak up instead of holding everything inside because of a fear of being perceived as weak?
As a basketball player, I always focused on my physical strength, but this past year made me realize how important it is to focus on emotional strength, and not the way our culture defines it for boys. I was pretty sure that my friends also felt hesitant to talk about everything they were going through–not just as teenagers in an uncertain time, but as teenagers in what is quickly becoming a more normal time too.
I wanted to change that, so I started talking, first with my mom, then with my friends. And yeah, it felt a little weird at first, and not everyone was into it, but for many of us, it felt like a huge relief. My friends also had been anxious and sad and stressed out. They also sometimes wondered if they were good enough, or what some random text meant, or felt pressure to do something in order to be liked. Some of them can’t wait to go back to in-person school in the coming weeks, others admitted they’re worried about going back–being academically and socially overwhelmed, or being exposed to the new variant of COVID. These weren’t “boy” or “girl” issues–they were human issues. And talking about them made us all realize we weren’t alone.
A few weeks ago, I took this a step further and created @talkwithzach, a community on Instagram and Tiktok where we can all begin having conversations about the things we need to talk about. In a time when we’re expanding our understanding of gender and its many expressions, what if our generation took the lead in expanding our understanding of emotional health as something not reserved for some genders, but as something essential for every single one of us?
So far I’ve addressed anonymous questions like how to tell if you have serious anxiety, how to help a depressed friend, how to talk about your relationship status, and how to stop overthinking. At first I was surprised by how many submissions I got, but it also made sense. Most of us have been holding everything inside for so long, and now there was a place to go. I also started bringing on experts to talk about issues teens face, and I’ve begun interviewing other teens willing to talk openly about their experiences with anxiety, loss of a parent, racism, and going through a breakup during COVID.
Are there guys who will make fun of me for talking about feelings on social media? Maybe. But if there’s even one teen who sees this and feels empowered to be vulnerable, if there’s one teen who feels the relief of not being alone, then we can shift the way we think about being “strong” in the world, which gets us one step closer to mental health equality for all.
It’s been over a year since my grandfather died, and recently somebody asked me about how long grief lasts. I got out my phone and explained what I knew about grief, how I came to realize that grief doesn’t necessarily end, how we can miss someone forever and move forward at the same time. I have no idea if my post helped that person, but I know this: just saying it out loud helped me.
And that’s the whole point. I definitely don’t have all the answers, but at least I’m comfortable talking about it.