A community death. A hurricane. A school shooting. A pandemic. As campus communities grapple with the aftermath of tragedies, students, staff and faculty alike work to find ways to process grief and support one another along the way.
Director of Student Care and Outreach at Elon University Paul Tonsgri at Elon University said individual support is the office’s “bread and butter.” Tonsgri considers offering individual support to be one of the roles his office can play after a tragedy, such as a community death, a traumatic event or even a natural disaster that impacts the Elon community.
Several variables impact how the office chooses to support individual students. In the case of a death in the community, it can be based on how connected the person was across campus, the needs of the person’s next of kin, or even their year or position at the university.
“It's never as straightforward as simply applying a standard plan,” Tonsgri said. “But we do try to maintain some semblance of organization and structure that seems familiar and relevant, and then we just try to apply that to the different situations that can come up.”
Dr. Tammy McCoy-Arballo, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who works with first responders, said there is not one way to experience or support someone through grief because every individual is different.
The varied reactions of students can be attributed to many factors, such as background, previous life experiences, culture and genetics. Depending on whether or not a student is directly experiencing the trauma or experiencing vicarious trauma also impacts the reaction each individual will have. When addressing a community, there is no “right” way to support those impacted, McCoy-Arballo said.
One of the first challenges Student Care and Outreach faces when trying to support students is identifying those who need the most support or who may want support.
“If I were to ask you, who are you most closely associated with, some of that would be really obvious,” Tonsgri said. “But beyond those obvious circles is not as obvious. Who your friends are from first year that you maintained is not going to be as obvious. We could look at your social media and try to figure something out, but that's a limited capacity.”
An hour after his best friend committed suicide, Elon University junior Paris Taliadouros remembers being reached out to by a member of the university. While the person offered resources, like counseling and connecting with the Student Care and Outreach office, Taliadouros said he didn’t want to accept any help.
“There's just so much anger inside of me of how this can happen?” Taliadouros said. “I just didn't really want to acknowledge that he was actually gone. I didn't want to acknowledge the feeling, I didn't want to have to go and have the official title of being a suicide survivor.”
Survivor’s guilt or feeling like a “survivor of suicide,” like Taliadouros did, is not an uncommon reaction. A year later, Elon University senior Catherine Stallsmith experienced a range of impacts when dealing with her own experience with grief, from survivor’s guilt to shock. While she was reached out to by Student Care and Outreach after the event took place, she knew others who were not 一 who felt like no one was there for them.
“I was offered many things by Elon, including counseling, which is all well and good until you realize you have to wait [two] weeks to get an appointment because counseling services is so overwhelmed,” Stallsmith said.
For Tonsgri, his worst case scenario is when a tragic situation emerges on campus and he is able to identify one group of students who need support, but he misses another.
“As a result, we're not able to give them the individual attention that they might feel would be warranted in the circumstances,” Tonsgri said. “Anyone who is doing this outreach is trying to do the best they can, and work really hard to try to connect to as many people as possible while not, for lack of a better word, shortchanging an individual's experience.”
Student Care and Outreach also relies on community partners, especially since there are only three employees in the office. A community partner can be a staff or faculty member a student knows, such as a residence community director or professor.
“I don't think that there's a long time to reach out to an individual, but I do think that from a student's perspective, it can feel as though there's a little bit of a time lag,” Tonsgri said. “But it's not for lack of trying or lack of desire to want to provide a level of support.”
Balancing a personal response and an “institutional” response from someone like a university administrator is difficult, as well, because not all students want the same type or level of support, Tonsgri said.
“I definitely can see some combination of both is probably most appropriate,” Tonsgri said. “You probably have some level of acknowledgement and support from the institutional standpoint, and then you have communities that are hopefully coming together to fill the gaps and provide that more sort of intimate relationship aspect.”
Connecting students to resources
Tonsgri said one of his roles is to connect students with resources that can best support them, from counseling services to coping strategies they can employ as they experience grief.
“In these circumstances, we're often connecting with students, acknowledging some of the impacts that they might be experiencing,” Tonsgri said. “We're trying to normalize or validate their response to that grief, letting them know that there's a lot of different ways to experience grief, and that there's no normal way to experience grief.”
Tonsgri said he often reminds students to practice healthy habits overall, such as practicing healthy sleeping and eating habits, and spending time with a support system.
“As weird as it may seem, oftentimes there's a lot of value of just being together as a community in these situations,” Tonsgri said. “That in and of itself is a resource that people don't really think about.”
Taliadouros did end up working with the university counseling services, and he even reached out to others in the Elon community to offer his support from the perspective of someone who has gone through loss. He said the persistence the university showed in supporting him was something he greatly appreciated.
“You can’t just say, ‘Hey, I’m here to help,’ and then never do anything again 一 you have to routinely check on them,” Taliadouros said. “It’s so important to let people know you are there for them.”
Experiencing grief on campus
For college students, grief can feel all consuming, especially for those who have not experienced a traumatic or tragic event, McCoy-Arballo said.
“When you're as young as you guys are, it's hard to know that because you maybe haven't experienced that,” McCoy-Arballo said. “That's where you need to lean on the people that you love.”
Rev. Kirstin Boswell said she notices that students often want to continue living life “as usual:” going to all of their classes, rehearsals and club meetings, rather than sitting with the uncomfortable emotions associated with grief, like anger, sadness and confusion.
“It feels alien to us, it's something that we want to do, we want to try to rush through it, get past it, not feel the emotions,” Boswell said. “As I've done this work longer and longer … I've begun to realize that it's really not best to just try to rush through grief or to not feel it.”
Boswell describes grief like the ocean waves: the feelings come in and recede. But she finds that students often fear they will get swept away in the tide.
“There’s this fear that perhaps we will lose ourselves to the grief, or that it will become so much that we can't imagine what's on the other side of that,” Boswell said. “I think sometimes we have to just get to the other side of that.”