Oberlin Must Find a Way to Help Grieving Students

In spring 2021, Oberlin students and community members engaged in debate after a troop of Girl Scouts painted a rock in Tappan Square, covering a memorial for two College students who had recently passed away. One of the names on the rock was that of my brother, Aiden Day. I joined the discourse, writing an article for the Review that encouraged everyone to consider and respect the complicated process that is grief. 

At a young age, grief can be lonely. In general, we think of grief as something that only older people have to cope with, a feeling and experience that most people don’t have to think about until a later age. When you exist outside of that conception, and when most of the people that you know do not share the intimate and traumatic experience of watching someone you love die, you can begin to feel that you are the only person in the world who has ever felt the way you feel.

But is that really the College’s problem? As much as we’d like to think of the administration as filled with people who genuinely care about the well-being of the students at their school, at the end of the day they’re running a business. Why should I expect that a huge institution would want to support the grieving sister of one of its students?

I am, of course, being a tad facetious here. Truthfully, I am confused and a bit hurt by the fact that there was never an email sent out to the College community about Aiden’s death. I do understand that there are thousands of people in the Oberlin community, and I am just one piece of a very large whole. But that doesn’t justify the lack of institutional support for grieving students. The current system is insufficient, and it may even lead to students transferring to another college. That just seems like a bad business model. 

Lacking broader support from the College, I found support elsewhere. To this day, I credit my success and retention at Oberlin to one person — Assistant Dean of Students Monique Burgdorf. I met Monique over Zoom in a job interview in May 2020. In the interview, I brought up the fact that I was able to continue my studies despite my brother’s illness. She immediately empathized with me — not sympathized, there’s a difference — and continued to follow up with me when I decided to take one of her Learning Enhancement Across the Disciplines classes in fall 2020, the semester after my brother passed away. 

Monique and I met once a week to talk about how my classes were going, how I was feeling, and what my plans were for the future. The consistent conversations that we had really made me feel like I had an ally on campus, and they made me realize that I always had someone who could advocate for me and explain my situation to people. Although it is important to learn how to advocate for yourself — I do think that there is a time and place for self-advocacy — the period right after the death of a loved one might be a time for more support from outside sources. 

College is not a good place for this sort of patience. There seems to be — everywhere I go on this campus — a sense that I am not doing anything fast enough, well enough, or completely enough. If I cannot be patient with myself, how can I expect others in the community to be patient with me? 

One space on Oberlin’s campus that actively cultivates patience and encourages conversation is Barefoot Dialogue. Traditionally, Barefoot Dialogue has been a space for students who are interested in seeking ways to negotiate their differences with their peers. I joined a virtual dialogue group in spring 2021. A third-year at Oberlin, I had heard about Barefoot vaguely from people that I knew, but I never considered joining. I filled out the form on a whim and then suddenly I was sitting on my bed in a Zoom meeting full of strangers. Among the students, there were two older folks on the call who introduced themselves as our hosts. They were lovely and sweet, but I had no idea why they were on the call or what a host was. 

I also had a hard time connecting with the centerpieces that the facilitators presented for our dialogue sessions. In the Barefoot world, a “centerpiece” — a poem, photo, quote, etc. — is meant to provoke thought and guide the general direction of the conversation. This is not to say anything bad about my facilitators. They were absolutely excellent, and I really appreciated the effort that they put into our group in the spring. But honestly, I felt a little uncomfortable after my first dialogue session. 

We had lots of conversations about ways to reduce anxiety, like taking long walks in nature, birdwatching, laying in bed, and having tea with friends. While these conversations did not feel completely trivial, they did feel like they existed on a plane that I did not, and still do not, feel that I belong to. I have felt this way often since my brother passed away last year. This is not to discredit conversations about anxiety reduction or to minimize other people’s problems. I just find that the things I am thinking about on a daily basis are very different from the things that an average college student is thinking about. 

In the spirit of offering support, and to fill the gap left by the College, Monique and I, along with College fourth-year Emerson Holloway, are facilitating a new Barefoot Dialogue group this fall for Oberlin students who are grieving the loss of a loved one. The group will meet once every other week and any students who are interested in participating can sign up here.

While Monique, Emerson, and I hope that our Barefoot Dialogue group will prove a valuable resource for students coping with grief, it is not a substitute for comprehensive support from the College. It should not take my stumbling randomly into one person who cares enough to help for me to want to stay at this school. Oberlin must turn its attention to its students. They are suffering, they are angry, they are confused, and they need support to be offered to them, not randomly sprinkled throughout campus.