Last school year, Tom Cannell ’06 would allow himself to joke about death, but only when he was in the company of those who were dealing with grief.
The jokes were not out of malice, but a sense of shared experience and humor. Cannell’s father had passed away three months before. Being with peers who had similar experiences, he said, allowed him to communicate more freely than he did with many of his other friends.
“You laugh at what makes you uncomfortable,” Cannell said. “Death is hilarious. But you can’t make jokes about death with people who aren’t in the group. They’re like, ‘Should I laugh?'”
Cannell, like dozens of other students over the years, is a former participant in Yale’s Student Bereavement Group. Run by the Chaplain’s Office at Yale, the program is open to students of all backgrounds and religions who are mourning. A separate group caters to staff and faculty members.
Cynthia Terry, the associate university chaplain, helped launch the support group in 1996. While the numbers of participants have fluctuated from about three to nine students per semester, she said, there have always been enough to hold meetings. This semester, the group is meeting for six weeks on Wednesday evenings from 9:30 to 10:30 p.m. in Bingham Hall.
Jessica Kovler ’06 discovered the group after she saw a flyer on campus that read: “Are you in grief?” Many students may have walked by the poster without even seeing it, but Kovler, who had lost her father, noticed. Others, like Cannell, needed more of a push to come. Though he had received e-mails about the group, he said, it was a friend’s encouragement that brought him to the first meeting.
However they ended up at the first bereavement group meeting, students said, they were glad they came.
“The minute we walked in, there were tissues on the table,” Kovler said. “You knew right away that it was an environment where you could feel free to share all your emotions.”
The first meeting is always the hardest, Terry said. The students don’t know each other, and depending on whether they’ve ever attended a bereavement group, they may not know what to expect. Of course, they are also grieving a death, whenever it occurred.
Yet even at the first meeting, Terry said, many of the participants open up about their loss — although she does not demand they divulge any information at all.
Participants attributed the flow of communication to Terry’s gentle guidance, the knowledge that other students had similar experiences and the soothing atmosphere of the meetings. But, Terry said, the way American culture deals with death also seems to be an impetus for students to share. While short-term mourning is commonly accepted in public, she said, people seem to think they should have recovered by the funeral’s end. Openly dealing with long-term grief is more rare.
Among college students, the trend can be even more acute. Because most have not previously encountered the death of a close relative or friend, death is rarely addressed on campus. The lack of open dialogue about loss may be even truer at Yale than elsewhere, Terry said.
“Yalies are very capable and accomplished and, I think, don’t talk a lot about what’s difficult,” she said. “There are a few things that are acceptable to talk about — like how hard classes are or relationship problems — but people don’t get at that deeper level that much. So when students come to this group, there’s a lot of relief.”
Selby Jacobs, psychiatry professor and director of the Connecticut Mental Health Center, agreed. Yale’s culture of self-sufficiency might even discourage students from coming to bereavement groups, he said, by regarding attendance as a weakness.
“That’s a shame,” he said. “I would view it as a way of learning, and I think [death is] a very important part of human experience to learn about, because it will pervade your life at different times. The more you can learn about it, the more you can learn about yourself.”
Students in the group agreed. One of the best resources for learning about how to cope with grief, they said, has been the other members of the group. Many leave for school breaks armed with ideas for handling holidays and avoiding potential emotional pitfalls.
Being able to “schedule” times to grieve also helps, said students. For Cannell, setting aside a specific time to mourn helped him stay on task for the rest of the week, he said. Otherwise, he said, he would feel overwhelmed with grief every time he was stressed.
Even so, the group isn’t only about mourning.
“We focused on life, not death,” Kovler said.
The group is encouraged to share anecdotes and memories and even the day-to-day events that show individual progress.
One year, Terry said, a student told the group she had been at the bookstore. When she went to the register, the clerk said, “Are you going to put this on Mommy and Daddy’s credit card?” “My mom and dad are dead,” the student said coolly. The girl shared the story with the group. And, perhaps unlike peers who had not lost a loved one, the group members knew just how to respond: “You go, girl!” they cried.
“There’s this freedom in getting to say things and laugh about things that other people would not be free to laugh about because it’s not their experience,” Terry said.
The communication among group members also forms quick bonds, Kovler said. While she no longer attends the meetings, she still sees the other two members in her group regularly. Last weekend, they celebrated a birthday together.
“I now know if I’m ever having a bad day as a result of grief, I know two other people on this campus I could call, day or night,” she said. “It’s a very unique bond.”