Campus deaths are not something that we like to think about. Having someone die at college is not something families wonder about on tours or that parents consider when they are saying goodbye as they drop their children off at the start of a semester. It isn’t something that the people who work on college campuses like to think about, either. I don’t. I’d much rather write how-to guides and what-to-do-when pieces when I write about college life and how to do it (and save money). We look at our vibrant, talented, and sometimes mischievous students and see bright futures, hope, and potential. But there are campus deaths. Faculty and staff sometimes pass, and students do die while they are in college, and when they do, it impacts everyone on campus, whether we knew the student or not.
Last Monday night, I attended a memorial for a college student. He, too, was vibrant and warm and funny and much-loved. A son, a friend, a student, a part of the fabric that is this community. I watched from the back row as the students wept and held hands. And I thought that there will never be another start of a semester or school year where he is not remembered for any of them. And probably any of us. These things hit hard, and while we move forward, we don’t forget. As the speaker said, we don’t get into this field to do this.
Before the service started, I was lost in my own world, thinking about the week before Thanksgiving in 1987. Brian Dunleavy, a friend to so many, a stellar scholar and athlete, a funny, handsome boy whom everyone liked, had died ice climbing at Dartmouth. We were juniors in college. We’d scattered to the four winds from our cozy Main Line prep schools, but most of us had stayed on the East Coast. There was no email or no texts or even cell phones back then. Word spread quickly as we called one another on our respective campuses. I was at home; I had mononucleosis, and I was trying to gather my strength to finish the semester.
I remember standing in the unseasonably frigid rain the Friday after Thanksgiving, after a mass that was a blur, watching them lower a coffin into the ground. We stood huddled together, the first time we’d all reunited as a group since senior week after graduation in June two years earlier. None of us knew what to say or what to do. We gathered together in shock and grief and felt the fragility of our faith being tested. We didn’t know it then, but that event changed all of us in different ways. Our mortality was a stunning revelation to our 19 and 20-year-old selves. There has not been one Thanksgiving since that we have not remembered Brian or the shock and pain of losing him so young.
Years later, while I was working on another campus not long after finishing grad school, a student died of a drug overdose. It was the end of the semester right before final exams, and the president of the college, a former corporate CEO, made the decision not to acknowledge it. I wondered about the “let’s pretend this didn’t happen” approach and whether it was the right choice for a small, residential campus. It wasn’t. A cloud hung over the campus as the grieving, confused students took their final exams and went home, graduation was an exercise in formalized misery and many students didn’t return that next fall. I left in June; it was too cold in too many ways, both literal and figurative, for me there.
Five years later I was an assistant dean at an elite, private college, rotating “on” weekends and “off” weekends with colleagues. It was late on a January Saturday night when the call came that students were reporting not being able to reach a senior living in the dorms. Campus security didn’t want to respond without a staff member, and it was my weekend. Nothing could have prepared any of us for his suicide. The senior staff, all of whom lived within 10 minutes of the college, raced to campus as I held the students who had followed us into the room and seen what none will ever forget in a small common area and the paramedics and police entered the dorm.
In the aftermath, the dean told us that our first and only responsibility was caring for the students. An academic whose true passion was working with late adolescents and who knew their psyches better than most experts, he predicted the possibility of a potential suicide cluster long before such things became part of our vernacular and happened at places like the University of Pennsylvania. We wondered if there had been signs we’d missed even as we watched events play out at MIT over Elizabeth Shin, whom they had known was in danger but had not contacted the family because of FERPA. We were told that if we ended up using the billion dollar endowment to fight a FERPA suit that saved a life, it would be money well spent and to err on the side of humanity and caution. He knew, too, that the late adolescent brain is not fully developed, that the pieces that assessed risk were the last to take hold, and that the onset of serious mental illnesses often coincides with the time that kids are in college. His was the firm hand on the tiller at all times; he always knew what to do for them.
So we came to work early and stayed late and spent some of our weekends in our offices. The faculty kept a closer watch over moods and attendance. We made eye contact with the students, asked them questions that required long answers and couldn’t be shrugged off with yes or no in passing and started joining them for meals in the dining halls.
He told all of us with dogs to bring them to work, and his Springer Spaniel joined my Aussie and my “5-pounds of pure puppy evil” Japanese Chin and others’ Labs and Goldens and mutts every day. And every night, I’d have to go look to see where they’d ended up, and some nights I’d just let them hang out in the dorms, and someone would bring them back to my office in the morning. I got used to watching them play endless, glorious fetch on the lawn outside my windows, and seeing my mercurial little Chin’s head popping out of book bags as she was carried around campus by the brawny members of the men’s rugby team in whom she’d found a bunch of unlikely friends. We helped the students take comfort in one another, we took care of them and we watched the ways they were coping, or not. We were watching for ripple effects. And I know they remember because I’m still in touch with many of them, so many years later. Other students have died there, both accidentally and from suicide, in the decade since I left, and I wonder how they’ve been met without Bob’s leadership and with the more corporate attitude that’s taken hold.
That was a sobering lesson on the impact that of death on college campuses. It’s always a shock, and as much as faculty and administrators are older and wiser and expected to know what to do, we feel the emotional impact just as much. As a parent now, I cannot help but think of the student’s mother who is faced with the unimaginable task of burying her child, and my heart breaks for her. I know that everyone will be watching our charges with more vigilance now, making sure that they are not using coping techniques that will do more harm than good in the long term. Every administrator at every college, especially the high stakes, top notch schools, worries about suicide clusters when confronted with campus deaths and wants to help students heal, and now I know that every parent feels like we’ve somehow let that student’s parents down, whether it’s true or not.
Later in the week, a group of faculty and staff members asked me if I knew of any research that would support using dogs as support animals on campuses. I’d already drafted this by then, but I’ve been thinking about how similar our approach had been 15 years ago given what they were thinking. I doubt Bob would have bothered to publish anything. He was always more of a knower and a doer than a publisher. There is published research now, though. And lots of it does support allowing animals to bring comfort during times of stress and grief. Bob knew so much then that still serves me well and informs my approach to academics and higher education in so many ways. He was always teaching — if not the students, then the staff. I often say that I did my doctoral work in higher ed there, under him. Many of us feel that way.
When I got home, Murph had made me dinner. I’d been debating whether to go to the service. I was tired after a sleepless night, a day at work, eclipse-mania, a trip to get school supplies and groceries and dropping him at home. Even he said that it was important for me to go.
“Someone died. Someone’s sad. You have to help them; it’s the right thing to do.” True enough, kiddo.
And then on Friday, another student died on another campus and another shock. He’d died suddenly and still inexplicably. I know that mom; I knew that boy; I know that president, and I know that dean. My heart broke all over again as my Facebook page turned to why and how and memorials. I don’t do death on social media pages like that. I called my friend, the dean. I sent a note to my friend, the president. I sent a mass card to his family. I couldn’t arrange to fly north for the service; I can’t miss time here, and Murph’s just started school. But still. Another campus grieving, another family dealing with a staggering loss and the pervasive “why” that we still ask, even though we know there aren’t any answers.