How We Grieve

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Photo by Yale Daily News.

First comes the email. Sent from the address of a top administrator, such as Yale

College Dean Mary Miller or now- Vice President Linda Koch Lorimer, the message is to the point. It lays out the bare bones of the tragedy in brief sentences and explains where we might find support: deans, Chaplains, psychiatrists.

Soon, more messages arrive in our inboxes. They tell us about vigils and, in some cases, investigations. They give us numbers to call if we need help. They emphasize that our university, our community, stands ready to support us.

And just like that, we enter a grieving process with thousands of others on this campus.

In the hours after one of those emails is issued, pain fans out across Yale in various forms. It hits those closest to the tragedy first. Then it diffuses, striking strangers with nothing but a couple of Facebook friends and maybe a lecture course in common with the Yalie who has died. Of them, some will take the news hard — they’ll contemplate the tragic waste of a young life or their own mortality. Meanwhile, others will take a moment to process the event before deciding it’s time to move on.

Each of these students will, in the back of their minds, register that they’re experiencing something they’ve endured before.

Since the fall of 2009, ten undergraduate students (including two recent graduates and three students taking time off from Yale) have died, leaving our student body mourning at least one death — and sometimes more — each semester.

Being vulnerable to such shared grief is, unavoidably, part of what we signed on to when we elected to enroll. “Being part of a community makes it easier to deal with the loss, but also, if you weren’t part of Yale, you wouldn’t be feeling anything,” says philosophy professor Shelly Kagan. “It’s this oddity that Yale both giveth and taketh away — or really, it taketh away and giveth. It provides the community which, among its many, many manifold advantages … also makes you vulnerable.”

That vulnerability has been underscored in a new way over the past three years. Before the recent losses, Yale’s undergrad community saw relatively few student deaths. None were reported in the 2008-9 school year. In the spring of 2008, two students passed away. Before that, one died in the spring of 2006 and another in the spring of 2005. Today, we are familiar with more regular losses.

Were the new statistics linked to a singular cause, they might point to a larger institutional issue, but the student deaths we’ve seen do not. Instead, they read like a survey of different causes of death: accident, illness, suicide, murder. What’s unique is that the losses have been tragically close together.

Yale’s response, then, has largely been about support, not policy changes. According to Jonathan Holloway, the master of Calhoun College and the current chair of the Council of Masters, those emails the university sends undergraduates are part of an emergency response plan fine-tuned out of necessity over the course of the 2009-10 school year, during which Annie Le GRD ’13 was murdered and three members of the undergraduate community — Andre Narcisse ‘12, Cameron Dabaghi ‘11, and Scott Michael Robinson, a former member of the Class of 2011 who had withdrawn during his sophomore year — died of various

causes.

“Yale’s gotten good at it,” Holloway says of the process. “I could see how we were getting better at it that year … with 2009-10, then 2010-11, I’ve never seen — I can’t recall a series of events like that.”

He details the steps the university has taken to reach out to undergrads time and again, but he acknowledges “there’s no emotional playbook.”

*

Three weeks into their arrival on campus, members of the class of 2013 heard that Annie

Le, a graduate student set to finish her time at Yale the same year as they would, had gone missing. She was found dead in an Amistad Street building five days later.

“It was just scary, mostly,” says Meredith Davis ’13. “We didn’t know what had happened to this girl … The worst part was, there could have potentially been some person walking around the streets who had killed her.”

As news coverage mushroomed, the investigations into Le’s murder revealed new facts each day, and the student’s tragic story — her disappearance, her impending nuptials, her discovery in a laboratory wall — spread across their new campus, the class of 2013 found themselves in the midst of a communal experience rarely a part of the average freshman’s first month at school.

Grief and uncertainty came up regularly in students’ conversations, Davis says, as the freshman class tried to understand how to react to a tragedy at the new home they’d idealized even before moving into their dorms.

“It was hard to grieve for someone we didn’t know but who had such a tragic death.”

Natalie Willis ’13 does not, she says, recall a sense of conscious grieving among her peers; instead, she witnessed the development of a constant, curious topic of conversation.

The topic has not been far from their minds since. The current senior class’ time at Yale maps onto the difficult time Master Holloway spoke of. They have been here, since 2009, to watch as one or more of their peers has been lost each semester. Le’s death “did really mark the beginning of a lot of tragedies,” Davis says.

Since her class began its time here, the undergraduate student death rate has been higher than that at almost any other Ivy League school over the same period, with the notable exception of Cornell, where the frequency of the student suicides has been notable, with six suicides over the course of six months in the 2009- 2010 school year.

Responding to a News survey asking whether Yale has changed after the recent deaths, one senior anonymously writes he or she feels that the class of 2013 “especially has become weighed down in some way by the deaths we’ve experienced since fall 2009.”

The numbers back up that hypothesis: according to statistics from that same survey, which was completed in the first week of September 2012 by 733 students across class years, 31 percent of seniors think about the series of student deaths once a month. That statistic falls to 20 percent for the undergraduate community as a whole. Just as tellingly, 33 percent of the general student body is now at a point where the the deaths never arise in conversation with their fellow Yalies; of the class of 2013, only seven percent selected that option.

“My friends and I,” an anonymous respondent says, “almost expect that somebody will die each semester, even though we recognize that that’s no way to live. I almost didn’t want to come back this semester because I was scared of having to re-experience the grief of losing a member of the student body yet again.”

His or her concern for a random member of the community reflects how tightly knit a class year at Yale is. They are tied to each other by bonds as disparate as camaraderie, campus organization membership, and complex paperwork. They’ve shared problem sets and parties. And they’ve watched as members of their community have left them forever.

The class of 2013 is, in that sense, a microcosm of Yale College. Alongside them, each class year other than 2016 has experienced the death of one or more Yalies. We have been united in our exposure to suffering, and statistics show that we still talk about it, think it, feel it.

Those elements could all combine to mean that the pain has become, at some level, an integral part of our collective identity, according to the work of legendary Yale sociologist Kai T. Erikson. In his research from the 1990s, which he told me could be applicable to a university context, he writes of trauma as “a continual reliving of some wounding experience” and argues that social groups dealing with such wounds, like our own, are distinct from mere assemblies of traumatized persons.

Traumatic wounds, he explains, “can combine to create a mood, an ethos — a group culture, almost — that is different from (and more than) the sum of the private wounds that made it up … Trauma, that is, has a social dimension.”

*

Janet Cooper-Nelson, chaplain at Brown University, wants to bring grief out of the shadows and into public discourse.

“The truth is, death is closer to us all the time than contemporary American society wants to acknowledge,” Cooper-Nelson says. “We don’t have much American language for that.”

Developing such a vocabulary means bringing sensitive memories, honest conversation about painful times, into our everyday lives. It will inevitably offend. And it may even trigger more hurt among communities that are still raw. Right now, that includes our own.

University Chaplain Sharon Kugler asked me to consider very strongly the demands of a piece exploring grief at Yale. Would any good could come of it, the Chaplain wondered.

Some undergraduates doubt that it would.When the News sent out its survey, participants clicked the link to the questionnaire and read an informed consent page that explained the research concerned student death. They could then choose whether or not to respond.

One randomly selected participant, Rachel Yen ’14, expressed her discontent with the questionnaire on Facebook, explaining that she found it inappropriate. I met with her to ask why. At the edge of her seat in a residential college common room, Yen told me that what the questionnaire engaged in — and what I must avoid in my writing — is over simplification.

Grief, Yen argued, cannot and should not just be measured in days felt or conversations had, the markers I’d asked students about in the survey. She had had, she added, her own experiences with grief at Yale.

Yen had been friends with Michele Dufault ’11, who died in a lab accident weeks before she was set to graduate. As the then-freshman dealt with her grief, her friends, professors, and peers were overwhelmingly supportive and accommodating.

But Yen recalled a different encounter with Yalies’ collective attitudes towards grief. She spoke of being at dinner with her friends after another student death months after Dufault’s passing. The Yalies she was eating with, she said, briefly discussed the topic and then moved

on to another.

“It’s astonishing … how unwilling friends are to even let a little bit be said about grief,” Chaplain Cooper- Nelson says.

Sociologists suggest that the resistance to discussing grief in casual discourse, considering the long-term impact such pain can have, may hinder the community’s healing process. Cooper-Nelson and Kugler emphasized the idea that grief takes months to settle in fully. While it may not be at the front of our minds, it lies dormant in our consciousnesses, individual and collective, waiting to be re-awakened.

At Yale, according to the News’ survey, that lingering feeling manifests itself in our thoughts and conversations. Seventy-eight percent of Yalies think of the deaths on occasion, with 32 percent saying they consider the losses once a month or more. Sixty-seven percent said they still discuss the incidents with their friends. Most of the student body said they did not experience grief for longer than three days after an incident — but at some subliminal level, they evidently remain concerned. So, too, do administrators.

“It’s about being here for students who are now facing something they’ve never had to face before … most of the students have not had something like a person their age [whom] they know die,” Holloway says. “You guys all feel like you’re immortal at your age. When your mortality is highlighted in such a dramatic fashion, it sends a shock. How do you make sense of that?” Overcoming our grief together could be a start.

*

It’s a bright spring morning in April 2012. Commons and Woolsey Hall rise up imposingly from Beinecke Plaza, the March chill in the air has given way to a just-right April breeze, and volunteers ranging from 6’5” basketball players to spry, small gymnasts are asking passersby to sign up for a bone marrow donor program called the Be the Match Registry.

It’s the day of the fourth annual Mandi Schwartz ’11 Donor Registration Drive, an event that means two things to our campus: it’s a campaign to help those in need across the country and, in local terms, an effort to memorialize one of our own.

Schwartz, a hockey player, died in April 2011, after a long and visible struggle with leukemia.

“In Mandi’s case, it’s very easy to go in a positive way,” says Holloway, the master of Schwartz’s residential college, Calhoun. “She was very willing to be public about her struggle,

[and] there was something concrete that could come out of her loss.”

Watching her fight the disease, Yale channeled its grief and empathy into a form its high-energy, driven student body could understand and take ownership of. Schwartz’s cause will improve lives for decades. Her memory will be associated with some sense of striking forward, building towards a better future.

Chaplain Kugler notes that many of the student deaths in recent years have been followed by outcries to “focus on the life and the promise of the person,” through the establishment of scholarships in his or her name or initiatives like the bone marrow drive.

These speak to us because, as Kugler’s counterpart at Brown put it, “we are such do-it

people.”

That’s why calls for an Artichoke Fund in the days following Marina Keegan’s ’12 tragic accident earlier this summer seemed not out of place but, in some bizarre way, an obvious next step. It’s why a number of the written responses to the News’ survey spoke about the need for a boost in mental health visibility after the suicides of Dabaghi and Zachary Brunt ’15, or the development of new lab safety procedures to prevent another incident like the mishap that killed Dufault. For a number of Yalies, one of the first reactions to a calamity is the instinct to yell, “Fix this!”

That “fixing” can take the form of a memorial. But, possibly due to the group mentality that Professor Erikson said is typical of traumatized communities, we also often look at our disasters, understand some part of the pain they’ve caused, and then consider where to place the blame. Yale is often the easiest target.

And in some cases, it’s a deserving one. Lab safety needed to be tightened. Yale Mental Health, that perennially criticized institution known best for its delays, could be run more efficiently. Holloway admitted that the administration had limited knowledge about the “little corner of Yale” in which Andre Narcisse ’12 was taking the drugs on which he eventually overdosed.

One anonymous response to the News survey said those in positions of authority here have failed to get to the root of the problems behind the deaths.

But not all the deaths we’ve seen at Yale can immediately be tied to “fixable” causes. The University could not have stopped cancer from striking Schwartz, Dan Siegel ’11, or Ralph Verde ’12; nor could it have somehow prevented the car accidents that killed Keegan or Moira Banks- Dobson ’11.

Holloway spoke of a contrast between the situation on our campus and that at a school like Cornell. There, after the suicides during the 2009-10 school year, a range of new policies was enacted, including the installation of safety nets over some of the campus’ gorges.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of student deaths at Yale, the University seems to have functioned in a way most undergrads approve of: 90 percent of respondents to the News’ survey believe Yale’s public response to the series of tragedies has been somewhat or more than adequate.

If Yale’s administration is doing all it can, but student grief still lingers on, is it time to turn our focus back to the individual?

*

“I’d guess that Yalies, mostly, are thinking and feeling people,” says Jeffrey Dastin ’14, the current president of Mind Matters. “They would acknowledge the tragedy and feel horrible about the deaths, but because Yalies also are such busy and committed people, they can only allot a limited amount of time [to grieve].”

After the interview, we both scurry off to our next commitment.

As Dastin suggests, when Yalies — immersed in a culture defined by the ‘do it’ attitude Chaplain Cooper- Nelson identified — negotiate their interactions with grief, they approach it cognizant of other priorities and respond accordingly.

Thirty-two percent of undergraduates (excluding freshmen) told the News they did not experience grief after the student deaths over the last three years, and a number of comments in the free response section expounded on the idea that death is a universal truth, whether it occurs at Yale or away from it.

Asked whether he or she thought the student deaths would have a long- term impact on his or her campus, one anonymous survey respondent said, “It seems to be accepted as a fact of life.”

When a loss occurs, some Yalies would argue, one must simply deal with the emotional fallout immediately. Then it’s time to focus on the next project.

Inevitably, those attitudes affect others less prepared to soldier on. Fifteen percent of students told the News that they felt expected, after each student death, to wrap up their grieving and return to their normal activities.

Chaplain Kugler says it is important to remember that not all will move onto that next project as quickly as others. “I don’t think we’re a campus that’s in mourning 24/7,” she says. “But I do believe we are a campus that has corners that continue to ache.”

Chaplain Cooper-Nelson of Brown has empathy for those corners. “When you start to layer death after death on all of you, I can imagine that you’re just exhausted emotionally,” she says. “What you do when you’re exhausted is to rest, but these are not communities of rest. It’s necessary to rest and give these large emotions time to become what they have to become.”

She speaks of grief as gestational: the end of a life, Cooper-Nelson believes, takes as much time and care to deal with as the beginning of one, and grief is as individual a process to a griever as pregnancy is to a mother. ‘“I would like for you, as the person grieving, to have respect for yourself in that process, and not to imagine that you can just forge ahead and do your activities,” she says.

One of Master Holloway’s priorities, he tells me, is to remind the Yalies in his college to have that self-respect — to tell them that any reaction, whatever they’re feeling, whenever, is valid.

His own reaction, Holloway adds, has been a mix of emotions: “When I went to my third vigil, Cameron’s vigil, I was angry. I was like, ‘This is insane! … we’ve got find a way to stop having these things … I am sick and tired of coming to these things.

“But I will always come.”

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