This past Saturday afternoon, instead of heading to study at Blue State, my usual haunt, my a cappella group and I performed at professor Sam See’s memorial service in Battell. I didn’t know Professor See. None of us did. But (lest you worry that this is about to turn preachy) we weren’t exactly there out of the goodness of our hearts — we were hired to perform by the event’s organizer.
Some members of the group spent the few minutes before we went on stage doing homework, but for some reason that I can’t quite explain, I ended up sitting through the entire service. Maybe I was affected by all the talk about mental health and not “being OK” that surfaced this past weekend, or maybe I just couldn’t stomach starting a problem set. Either way, the service was incredibly beautiful — professors and students, family and friends all took turns sharing personal reflections on the life of Professor See, as well as reading from books and poems that held a special importance in his life.
And as I sat there, listening to people I had never met read from books I had never read and share stories about a man I had absolutely no connection to, I found myself weeping. Even later that evening, talking to my friends about it, I couldn’t finish a sentence without crying. I really couldn’t explain what about it had moved me so much, since at the end of the day I kept on coming back to the same reality: I never met Professor See. Why, then, did his passing so shatter me?
But then I remembered — I shouldn’t need a specific reason. A member of this community died. Not only that: A young, talented member of this community, one who clearly touched a lot of lives and had a great deal left to give, died. I shouldn’t have to have met him to feel that loss. That feeling of grief shouldn’t need to be explained. I’m not saying that everyone needs to walk around weeping for every single loss — no one would be able to function that way — but it’s understandable, and maybe even desirable, to feel that sadness, to let it stop you in your tracks every now and then.
I’m not the first to observe that Yalies are very bad at not being OK. Sadness is a distraction, something to be juggled with your five-credit course load and extracurricular commitments. It takes a big chunk out of your day to let grief about a family crisis, an untimely death, or even no known reason at all, weigh on you. And so, by and large, we don’t.
When, in November, it was reported that Professor See had died in a prison cell, students’ reactions were more of surprise and discomfort, rather than grief. It was another thing that we didn’t have time to really feel. The story was confusing, even salacious, so we paid enough attention to gossip. But there was no collective mourning, no allowance of time made for people to do nothing but be sad.
When, weeks after professor See’s death, the state medical examiner reported that he died due to the use of methamphetamines, it felt like, in a very subtle and private way, the Yale community took a deep sigh of relief. This death, so sudden and unexpected, was now explicable. It had a tangible medical cause. But even better, it was a cause that allowed us to ascribe blame. Professor See died because he did drugs, people thought. It was, in a way, a death of his own making. That absolves us of the need to feel heartbroken at his passing, doesn’t it?
Actually, it doesn’t. I have family members who have grappled (and are grappling) with substance abuse. It is not a recreational pastime that we can or should sit around moralizing about. And it does not make heartbreaking accidents any less heartbreaking. If you take the time to ask anyone who had the good fortune of knowing professor See, you’ll hear he was a brilliant man. As I learned at his memorial service, he was the kind of man who held a funeral for his cat. He sent page-long emails when catching up with friends. He loved passionately; he inspired his students; he cared deeply about each and every single thing he did and person he encountered. He also, like everyone, struggled. That doesn’t make his loss any less devastating.
In our quest to continue to be “fine” and function smoothly and without hitches like pesky emotions, I worry that people on this campus didn’t take the time to feel sufficiently sad about Sam See’s death. We moralized and pushed it away. We suppressed it. But it’s only fitting that we take a moment to remember that we lost someone. Acknowledge it: Death isn’t fine. Right now, we don’t need to be OK.
Victoria Hall-Palerm is a junior in Berkeley College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.