Kalina Mladenova

When Simone Koch Costa’s grandmother passed away in Brazil from COVID-19 just before the beginning of the second semester, she dealt with the loss mostly on her own.

“I was really close to my grandma, but I couldn’t be there with her,” Koch Costa ’22 said. “I couldn’t go to that COVID-19 hotspot and come back; even if I went [to Brazil] I wouldn’t be able to go to the hospital with her.”

Koch Costa, who transferred to Yale in the fall of 2019 and is currently enrolled off campus, said that she has thought a lot about reaching out to support systems at Yale — but did not know where to begin. She’s wary about letting strangers into her mourning process. But the relationships that she has built in college are young and still maturing, and she’s unsure if she wants to freight these friendships with her own grief. While her work supervisor and professors were understanding when she asked for extensions, she still felt she shouldn’t have.

“I have a lot of awesome, very caring professors, but I don’t want to use up their office hours by bringing [the loss] up,” she said, “even though it may have helped, since I have an established relationship with them.”

Every Saturday, Koch Costa logs onto a Zoom session with some of her friends from her residential college. She plays online Pictionary with them and sometimes just talks — eluding the subject that has occupied much of her mind over the past month.

“I didn’t want to talk about it with them, either — I knew I would fall apart,” she said. “This is our fun. This is our one meeting a week. I don’t want to make it about me.”

The grief of one COVID-19 death is cast onto approximately nine surviving family members, according to a Penn State study on kinship networks. Such a multiplier would suggest that a country that recently surpassed 500,000 coronavirus deaths is also a country of at least 4.5 million mourners — and likely many million more, given that the estimator does not even attempt to account for the messily entwined circles of friends, mentors and colleagues that a single individual reaches. Since public, ritual mourning practices have largely tapered off this year because of the pandemic, experiencing the deaths of loved ones — due to COVID or other causes — can also be especially isolating.

A recent Washington Post column observed that, once, an individuals’ passing was borne out by extravagant social rituals. But due to the number of deaths during the First World War and the 1918 pandemic, the author wrote, prolonged, communal mourning processes could simply not be maintained. In the century that has followed, mourning became abbreviated and grief private.

At Yale, coming to terms with the recent loss of a loved one may also require setting aside other academic and social obligations.

“A toxic productivity goes along with Yale time, which can be energizing but not always healthy,”  Yale University Chaplain Sharon Kugler said. “We chaplains, even in normal times, would be more countercultural to encourage people to take time for themselves. Not everything is urgent and earth shattering.”

But it can be hard to step back, she acknowledged, in a “competitive atmosphere that’s also very smiley.”

And as much as it has been written about and written over, grief is relentlessly individual. Regressive, stubborn, fuzzily defined, mourning a death cannot be compressed and sectioned off by a deadline.

Although the Chaplain’s Office is the University’s spiritual heart, Kugler said that her meetings with students are frequently not religious in nature. Students can sign up for a remote appointment with a chaplain through their website or contact individual chaplains directly. 

There are other resources at hand for members of the Yale community experiencing grief —  residential college deans and heads are often the first in line to contact a student who has been experiencing a challenging loss; students may also choose to engage with peer-to-peer resources through various informal and formal mentorship programs and the Walden Peer Counseling hotline.

“When it comes to a community of care, silos go away. But we think about who we are failing to reach: some students, graduate students or those who live off campus may be less visible,” Kugler said.

Grief counselors through Yale Mental Health and Counseling can also be reached by phone, to set up Zoom appointments.

“I find that Yale students often worry that allowing themselves to feel emotions will lead to them becoming overwhelmed and then not being able to be functional and falling behind,” wrote Paul Hoffman, director of Mental Health and Counseling at Yale Health, in an email to the News. “Grief counseling is a way of encouraging people to talk about and explore their feelings to not sweep them under a rug.”

It has been a particularly difficult month for many Yale students and staff because of the passing of Andrew Dowe ’08 GRD ’20 — a lecturer, director of undergraduate studies of women’s, gender and sexuality studies and associate director of the Office of LGBTQ Resources — and the high-profile shooting of Kevin Jiang ENV ’22, currently under investigation as a murder, within a short window of time.

Michelle Morgan GRD ’17,  Yale’s digital accessibility specialist, was a classmate of Dowe’s in the American Studies graduate program and a friend. She described her reaction to Dowe’s passing as one not only of grief but also of anger and uncertainty.

“Andrew’s presence made my own continuation as a staff member here possible — he made being here possible for many different kinds of people,” Morgan said. “Andrew was so self- sacrificing to everyone, to all students, but who he was beyond his generosity. How do you grieve for someone personally, past a professional front? What are we extracting from people like Andrew? How do we provide as mentors of students when there just isn’t enough to go around?”

Morgan has been leading a weekly virtual sewing circle with the Office of LGBTQ Resources to create a wall hanging in tribute to Dowe. But three weeks ago, Zoom-bombers hijacked what was intended to be a healing space suddenly by displaying a disturbing graphic video and using Nazi hate speech. 

“We can reclaim that, but it feels contaminated,” she said. “There’s no way to have closure — there’s no ritual.”

The absence of a ritual for the community to come together after the passing of a loved one is its own kind of loss, particularly as students are also experiencing losses of routine and of in-person connections, noted Eunice Yuen, an emotional wellness consultant who works with the Asian American Cultural Center. 

“There’s a lot of spaces to have these conversations, but not everyone has the same relationships with [Dowe],” Morgan said. “It’s hard to forge the same kind of intimacy around a person with strangers, especially when it is mediated digitally.”

While Zoom vigils and funerals are an ersatz substitute to physical togetherness, Kugler said that they have shown her that individuals are so willing to connect with one another that they commit to an event, even on the imperfect venue of a Zoom screen. Grieving is about peers showing up for peers, she noted, and being slightly more open to admitting what you are going through — even when no magical set of words can be strung together to bring the experience to an early end.

“The work of grief is three steps forward, four steps back, but we get to know each other more tenderly and differently in the process,” she said. 

Three years ago, just after the end of her first semester at Yale, Jaccaranda Woldemariam ’21 came home to the sudden news of her father’s passing. Catapulted into her second semester at Yale, she plunged herself into academics, seeking in her classes an anesthetic for grief.

Though she spoke regularly to a supportive priest at St. Thomas More, Woldemariam did not tell her friends about her father’s passing until the last month of the year. Looking back, she says that she spent the semester and summer following her father’s passing finding “ways to escape,” finally taking time to rethink her academic priorities and sort through her grief during her sophomore year. 

Spending this past year taking classes from home because of the pandemic has been especially hard, she said. In her hometown, places and activities frequently become tripwires, jogging, without a moment’s forewarning, dormant memories of her father. 

“Memories will be weird, popping up and triggering us in unexpected ways. You can be in Shake Shack and find yourself in tears,” Kugler said. “This is not a new conversation. Helping people through grief is giving them permission to be gentle with themselves. Sometimes life doesn’t go on — we have to stop and let what has happened in.”

When she transferred to Yale, Koch Costa had been hoping that her grandmother would be able to visit campus. Medical complications delayed initial plans; then, her grandmother passed in January. 

Instead of the anticipated reunion at Yale, Koch Costa is getting a tattoo in tribute of her grandmother, and sometimes wears her jewelry to class. She stores these pieces — some Christmas bracelet charms, a ring, an angel necklace — in a wooden music box from Vienna, which chimes to “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music.” It’s one of her grandmother’s favorite songs.

Emily Tian | emily.tian@yale.edu