Christina McIntyre, Virginia Tech
Kevin, Meredith, Heidi, Austin, Leslie, Maxine, Brian, Nicole, Danny, J.J….
Lives that ended too soon. Students, my students, our students, who should have lived long, productive lives.
Who would have made a difference in this world that very much needs individuals striving to make a positive impact on society.
A car accident, leukemia, a random act of violence, a hidden sadness, cancer, wrong place/wrong time, … As one student expressed following the death of a friend, “One thing that I realized is that getting older and experiencing loss doesn't prepare me enough for another tragedy. I still feel rejection, guilt, anger... But one thing that I know is that I'll never forget those who left us. The good spirits they brought into my life will carry on.”
They leave us behind to wonder, to struggle – and to console.
Poet Nikki Giovanni (2007) gives me guidance – “We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly, we are brave enough to bend to cry, and we are sad enough to know that we must laugh again.”
I knew he was special. But did I cherish that? Only too late I learn that she played beautiful music. That he volunteered with Special Olympics. I meet her friends and family. We share stories. And laugh – but we catch ourselves laughing – and the tears return – and the laughing turns into a distorted face of anguish.
“We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory, neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy” (Giovanni, 2007).
The students look to us for guidance. Our knee jerk-response is to refer them to counseling. Assure them that counseling can be helpful and is not a stigma (regardless of cultural mores). But referring a student to counseling too quickly comes across as passing them off, giving them the runaround. Taking time to talk, listen, be quiet and then suggest we walk over – together – for counseling, can make all the difference.
What else can we say to the student who is hurting from the death of a friend and colleague? Charles (Jack) Dudley (2010), Director Emeritus, University Honors at Virginia Tech wrote:
“The best approach to honors students is to acknowledge that they are fully operating adults. …Trouble requires either capitulation or growth. In a society that treats college as preparation for a job, honors holds out the hope that we can accomplish the crucial task of helping young people become strong and moral leaders in all areas of life. How we assist them achieve such a status determines our success and integrity as a special component of a university. The willingness and courage of our young honors students often defies our expectations, but what they wish for more than anything is that someone—often us—“have their back.”
Having established trusting relationships, our offices can be viewed as a refuge. The SafeZone sticker outside my door extends beyond its original meaning. It’s O.K. to cry, to not cry, to sit and linger, to hug and be hugged in the company of others who feel their fear and pain.
The importance of ceremony: Be it a candlelight vigil, a funeral service or a hike with friends to the mountain top, ceremony is important in the wake of a death. It brings us together when we might otherwise shrink into the shadows. We connect with others who carry the memory and their spirit. My words fall short, and I find solace in the words of another: “We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning” (Giovanni, 2007).
There will come a time to move on, but it should not be too soon, and until that time, we need to be present for and with them.
Christina M. McIntyre
Associate Director, University Honors
Dudley, Charles. (2010) Managing trouble in troubled times: A Responsibility of Honors. Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council. pp. 15-17. Online Archive. Paper 264 http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nchcjournal/264
Giovanni, Nikki. (2007, April 17). We are Virginia Tech, Convocation Address. Transcript: http://www.remembrance.vt.edu/2007/archive/giovanni_transcript.html
Hear Nikki deliver this address: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-Qx9dIr-68
Cite this article using APA style as: McIntyre, C.M. (2013, March). On the death of a student. Academic Advising Today, 36(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]