Too far to grieve
Coping with death on campus
I had watched the scene unfold twice before. In the busy shuffle between classes and club meetings, the phone call comes. My friends learn that someone they loved has died, and by physical proximity, I am the first outsider to know.
Sarah’s phone call came after a 6.042 lecture. Her eyes welled with tears as her sister told her their grandfather passed away. I held her closely as she cried. I turned her away from the prying eyes of passing students in Stata and rubbed her head until she was ready to go home.
When I received news of my father’s passing last May, I did not want to “perform” my grief. Instead, I stopped psetting, had a conversation with my sister over the phone, and walked back to my dorm before shedding a tear. I did not want to post carefully-crafted photo collages on social media, write paragraphs about what he meant to me, or force my grief to compete with final exam memes for likes. I did not want people to imagine me as a girl who mourns loudly, who allows emotion to overwhelm daily life.
Crafting an image of myself continuously wailing in sadness would be false. My life continued as planned: I returned to campus after the funeral, took two exams, and completed my 6.004 project. I flew to Seattle for an internship. I went hiking, ate food, and watched film festival movies. I talked about my dad’s antics as usual and only mentioned the death of my father to one new person in the last week of my internship.
I hid my sadness in the same way I sheltered Sarah’s face from the public in the hall. Below my cheery surface, I harbored emotional moments: slipping out of the intern room to cry, being held by my boyfriend, giving myself headaches thinking about missed moments with my father, avoiding my mother’s anxious questions. In my private life, I was free to express my grief around close friends and to perform mounting chores necessary for the estate.
My friends and I are not the only ones. Everywhere on campus, people are mourning their loved ones. They need compassion and patience, but they are much less vocal than the people who mourn their grades. Their emotional conversations happen behind closed doors. In S^3, even trained professionals can be overwhelmed by the circumstances and feel the need to redirect you to a better-prepared person. So how can we prepare ourselves to support our friends when tragedy happens?
These are helpful things that people did for me, and things I wish I’d done for other people:
When something happens, call. Calling shows your commitment to listen and a willingness to take time out of your day. No one wants their grief to be just another passing theme in the group chat.
Explicitly ask people how they are doing and how their family is coping.
For the person experiencing loss, telling a group of people one at a time is exhausting, so let other close friends know what happened.
Encourage them to be with family even if it means missing a week of class. If they can’t because of distance or price, offer to hang out more — relieve the pressure they feel to perform as though nothing is wrong. Don’t let your friends feel sad, lonely, and overstressed.
Keep checking up on them.
Mourning continues for months or years after the event, but we can easily forget someone else’s grief as we continue our own routines. Simple things like eating together, praying together, watching cat videos, or doing puzzles can ease a grieving soul. Create an environment for your friends such that no place is too far to properly grieve, because every place can be a home.