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OPINIONS

Op-Ed: On Student Grief and Bereavement

In a six-month period between the spring of my junior year in high school and the fall of my senior year, I experienced three unexpected losses. One of my classmates, my aunt and my homeroom adviser of three years died at the ages of 17, 42 and 56, respectively.

While my entire school mourned the losses of my classmate and teacher, only a small number of my friends and my teachers were aware that my aunt had died, too. As contained as I kept my mourning in high school, I find it even harder to express my grief at Stanford.

Last Thursday, I attended a Student Grief and Bereavement Workshop at the Vaden Health Center. The event, which is co-sponsored by the Office for Religious Life, Counseling and Psychological Services and the Residence Deans twice a quarter, allowed undergraduate and graduate students from all of Stanford’s schools to share their stories of loss in a supportive environment.

As one of seven attendees, the workshop provided a much-needed respite for me. Though the “Stanford Bubble” generally refers to our self-sufficiency and seclusion from the outside world, I think it also applies to how the campus, and college students in general, deals with death and mourning.

During the workshop, I learned that roughly a quarter of any college campus is dealing with loss at any given time. Whatever the percentage is at Stanford, it surprised me that so few students attended the workshop on Thursday and that I was the only male student present.

Maybe the event wasn’t publicized well enough, but I think that even if flyers were posted in every bathroom stall on campus, attendance still wouldn’t have been very high.

On a campus where students always seem happy and laid back and the weather is usually 75 and sunny, it doesn’t seem appropriate to grieve or feel depressed. And particularly as a freshman, I do not yet feel comfortable saying to my friends or dormmates, “Actually, I’m not having a good day—I miss my aunt a lot today,” rather than smiling and saying, “I’m fine.” I have also found very little time to grieve—there is always a friend to hang out with, a meeting or event to attend, homework to finish and something new about Stanford to discover and marvel at.

Death is also a taboo topic in our society as a whole. We are raised to believe that all people live long, healthy lives and only die when they are old. We are made to feel as though there is an appropriate amount of time for grieving, and after that period we should have gotten ourselves together. These notions make dealing with loss particularly difficult.

And in a society that labels men who express their emotions as weak, grieving becomes an even more internalized process that is in constant conflict with our external representations. I think this judgment is a reason I was the only male to attend the workshop.

If death became a mainstream topic in our cultural dialogue, loss and grief would be much easier to handle. I had many opportunities to discuss death and mourning with my homeroom teacher before he died. Hearing his experiences with losing loved ones and his views on death not only helped me cope with the losses of my classmate and aunt, but it ultimately made his death less traumatic and more a fact of life. Instead of becoming depressed over his death, I dedicated my senior year to celebrating his legacy and my homeroom bonded to become arguably the best and happiest one in the school.

But since such a drastic cultural shift does not seem likely, a few questions remain: How, if at all, can we as a campus encourage more open dialogue on death and grieving? What is the best way to publicize events like the Student Grief and Bereavement Workshop? Through flyers? Through Facebook? By word of mouth? And for those of us who have not experienced loss, how can we be supportive of our peers that are grieving?

One of the topics we discussed during the workshop was the dilemma created when one says, “You can always talk to me if you’re feeling down.” While the sentiments behind this statement are valid, it puts the onus of starting the conversation on the griever, something that can be particularly hard when one already feels buried in emotion.

So, while I do not have any concrete answers for my first two questions, as someone who has experienced loss, I think being sensitive and supportive would suffice to answer the last question and address the issue of who starts the conversation about one’s grief and when. We should pay attention to each other’s moods and check on our friends when they seem unhappy. And though we usually won’t feel the loss as deeply as our friends, I think simply spending time with them shows that we care and want to help them cope as best as we can.

Kristian Bailey ‘14

Daily Fellow

Ed. Note: There will be another workshop on Thursday, Dec. 2 at 5:30 p.m. at Vaden.

  • Staci Barfield

    Hi Kristian,

    What a well-written and insightful article. Your story mimics that of many college students across the country. I am glad to see that Stanford has taken an active approach to bereavement by offering the workshop. I would also like to introduce you to another fairly new resource that is expanding to college campuses across the country. This non-profit organization is called National Students of AMF (www.studentsofamf.org).

    National Students of AMF (“AMF”) was created in response to the loss of a Georgetown University student’s mother to a brain tumor. After seeking counseling, the student (David Fajgenbaum) and his counselor determined that what he really needed was the understanding of his peers as he grieved and faced the social, academic, and developmental challenges of college. From that, AMF was born in 2006 (AMF are David’s mother’s initials).

    The mission of National Students of AMF is to support college students grieving the illness or death of a loved one. We are not a counseling organization, but rather a collection of peer support groups addressing the issue of grief on college campuses. Students of AMF campus chapters provide an environment where bereaved college students can relate to peers facing the unique challenge of grief during their college years. Our college campus chapter-based model of support was developed in conjunction with our Board of Mental Health Professionals, which consists of many experts in the fields of college student bereavement and mental health. Like the workshop partnership at Stanford, we work with our AMF chapter leaders to build relationships with campus counseling, religious life, residential life, academic advising, and other relevant campus organizations.

    The need for an organization like AMF is great. Research shows that 35-48% of college students have lost a family member or close friend within the last two years. And countless others experience the illness of family or friends while in college. As you know, the college years can already be emotionally and mentally confusing; grief adds another layer of complexity and can also bring about profound negative effects if not properly addressed.

    If you would like more information about AMF or starting a chapter at Stanford, check out our website at http://www.studentsofamf.org, email staci@studentsofamf.org, or call 919-803-6728.

    Staci Barfield
    Executive Director
    National Students of AMF
    http://www.studentsofamf.org