Together/Apart

Together/Apart
Together/Apart
By Sacha Zimmerman

As the coronavirus continues to alter the fabric of our daily lives, Vidisha Patel ’81 reminds us to practice self-care, appreciate the pause, and listen to the virtues of silence.

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We’re living in an unusual time. Around the world and across the country, society as we knew it came to a sharp halt in March. Businesses closed, schools shuttered, stay-at-home orders swept through communities, “social distancing” became 2020’s catchphrase, and masks are now de rigueur. It’s jarring, limiting, and often lonely. That’s why Head of School Bryan Garman wanted to speak with Vidisha Patel ’81 on the Lives That Speak podcast. Patel, a psychotherapist with expertise in children’s and family mental health, runs Peace of Heart, LLC, in Florida. She joined Garman to provide the Sidwell Friends School community with pointers on how to maintain mental wellness during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Bryan Garman: You have a long association with the School. 

Vidisha Patel: Yes. We moved to the United States when I was 4 years old and my brother, Anindya Dehejia ’78, was about 6 or 7. My mother’s family is Jain, and she was concerned about schools with religious affiliations. She wanted a school that was going to raise us with the values she wanted us to have. They found Sidwell Friends, and my mother was very comfortable with the Quaker religion and thought it would be a good fit. But there were some challenges: My parents naively thought they could land in Washington, show up at the School, and say, “Please admit my children.” My father quickly discovered that’s not how it works. He called Peter Rice, the principal of the Lower School at the time, but he couldn’t get a meeting. So, my father actually drove out to the summer camp where Peter Rice spent the summers, just showed up and basically told him, “You must have my children.” So my brother started at Sidwell, and then I came. I was a lifer. Sidwell was family, our home away from home. It laid the foundation for our lives.

BG: Your life has an interesting trajectory. Talk about your career and how you became a counselor.

VP: When I was in 9th grade and my brother in 12th grade, our mother passed away. She was a physician. So I decided I was going to follow in her footsteps and become a doctor. I went to Williams College with that purpose in mind. It was wonderful there. I felt very prepared after my time at Sidwell. I was pre-med—but quickly, I discovered that college isn’t something you go into with a singular purpose. I had the good fortune of having a friend say, “You cannot graduate from Williams College without taking an art history class.” She opened up a whole new world to me of what it meant to be educated. I fell in love with art history and decided to shift my major.

But then another twist. I enjoyed art history but didn’t want to make it a career. I went to Wall Street after college and worked in finance and international banking with multinational banks and corporations. And I went to business school at Columbia University and received an MBA. 

Still, something was missing. While I was good at my work, it wasn’t enough. About the time I graduated business school, I met the person I ended up marrying. I started thinking about life as a family person, as a wife and mother. I wanted a career where I could have it all—or thought I could have it all. I spent a year looking into what made me happy, what I enjoy doing, and how I could give back to others. What kept coming up was psychology, therapy, listening, and relationships. So when we moved to Florida 25 years ago, I decided to get a doctorate in psychology—which I did while I raised my two children. Now I am a licensed mental health therapist. I work with children, families, and a lot of women. 

BG: Working on a doctorate with young children uniquely qualifies you to offer advice to parents during a pandemic. What do you say to those experiencing the tension between work and parenting?

VP: We have to have patience with ourselves, our children, and our families. But we must start with patience for ourselves. When I was at home, raising kids and studying, that was a choice I made. I could adjust how I did things. But in this situation, we’re actually being told that we have to stay home, and there are things required of us that are very limiting. I ask parents to look at where they are, what they’re feeling, what shifted in their surroundings. What tools and limitations do you have? Because how you manage your emotions is going to impact how you parent your children. From an emotional space, it’s really important parents practice self-care. Children pick up on emotions. You can say what you like, but if it’s not what you’re feeling, your children will know.

Communicate your struggles to your kids, and ask them what they might be struggling with. Kids have fears and anxieties of their own. This is an opportunity, when we’re all together, to have conversations we might not otherwise have. There’s this concept of family meetings where you get together at a specific time. Those are fine. But what I’m talking about are impromptu conversations. If you’re anxious and your child can see that, you can say, “I’m just feeling a little anxious right now, so I need to take five minutes and sit outside on the porch.” Be honest with where you are. That helps children to be honest with where they are.

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BG: What are you seeing as you treat children in this moment? 

VP: A lot of grief. There’s grief around events that won’t happen now or people they can’t see. Grief is a big thing. There are also the transitions kids are missing—from elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, graduations—those are very important. Missing graduation is a huge loss. I do a lot of counseling to help students recognize that loss. You need to go through it. You need to feel whatever you feel about it: sad, angry, whatever it is. Added to this is the anxiety over the question of what life is going to look like in the summer and fall. Maybe kids were supposed to go to camp. Maybe they had internships. The social isolation is big: When kids go to school, they’re not just learning academically; they’re learning socially. They have breaks, recess, sports. It’s very hard to replicate that at home. 

BG: Is there an opportunity to improve our psychic well-being during this time? 

VP: This is a fabulous opportunity. Life has become too hurried. People are so focused on the next goal, the next target, the next step. All of a sudden, we can’t do that anymore. We’ve been forced to stop. This is an opportunity to slow down, to be limited in what we can do, to reconsider what’s important. My hope, as life opens back up a little, is that people don’t just go running back to what their schedule was. My hope is that we can all become thoughtful about what we add back in. 

BG: This spring, you attended a Meeting for Worship to honor a student, Kieran Shafritz de Zoysa ’26, who was killed in a bombing in Sri Lanka last year. What was it like to come back to Meeting for Worship? 

VP: It was one of the most impactful things I’ve done in lockdown. Coming together as a community is really powerful. I wasn’t sure what it would be like in a digital format; I was pleasantly surprised. The sense of community was very much there, even though we were all in front of computers. The conversations, the values, the way people talked about Kieran, who he was, and what was important—I was transformed back to Sidwell Friends. Meeting for Worship really helps reinforce the feeling that we’re all in this together, and it offers some beautiful insights. The kids’ insights brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my face. They really understand what it is to be a good human being. And they understood Kieran. Their willingness to share, their comfort with the technology—it was really beautiful.

BG: How important is the experience of community to helping children process grief?

VP: I can speak personally in terms of being in Upper School and going through grief. When my mother passed away, Sidwell did a very kind thing: It had a Meeting for Worship to bring the community together for my family and my mother. When we know there’s a large group of people who are all there holding the space for us, it’s very comforting. The nice thing about Meeting for Worship is you don’t have to speak, but you can. And when others speak, you get their wisdom. Meeting for Worship and community in general are important so that kids know they’re not alone. Meeting for Worship also honed my ability to be thoughtful. I often talk to clients about listening and then responding but not reacting. That comes from allowing for a pause. Meeting for Worship taught me how to take that pause. And the silence. I crave that silence. It’s a wonderful way to set goals, focus on what’s important. I use it in my personal life, with my kids, in my work. It’s part of who I am.

BG: We now have the Anindya Dehejia ’78 fellowship program. Can you share a little bit about the program and how it honors your brother’s legacy?

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VP: Anindya was my only sibling, my older brother by two and a half years. He was very bright, studious, extremely curious. He studied molecular biology and biochemistry, and he did research for the National Institutes of Health. When he passed away very suddenly in 2001, my father and I wanted to do something to honor his memory. And Anindya got his values, who he was, from Sidwell. So now we have an internship program for rising seniors to get firsthand knowledge of being in the world and working. Anindya got his start through an internship; it was instrumental in his life. Anindya went back and worked with those same researchers for years. Other people may not find an internship so enjoyable, but that’s equally important. It’s good to know what you like and what you’re good at. It’s also important to know what you don’t like and what you’re not good at. Anindya used to say, “When you have a success, that’s great. But that’s it, it’s done. But when you fail at something, there’s so much to be learned. That’s how you grow.” 

BG: And this moment gives us an opportunity to do that every day. Doesn’t it?

VP: It really does. It’s a time for reflection. This is a very important time to reflect on not only who we are individually, but who we are as a community and who we
are globally. 

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