The following is the first post in a series by ICTG Advisor, Melissa Marley Bonnichsen, addressing topics related to trauma and the pastoral care of college and university students.
The returning back to college and university campuses at the start of the year is an exciting time for many students. The energy, like static electricity, moves through the air in those days and nights leading up the start of the semester; this feeling is truly magical. There is so much anticipation, joy, and excitement going around that it almost feels electric.
While some wait till the last minute to return to campus, many choose to return Saturday morning, some even Friday night, eager to move back into the dorms in hopes to squeeze a couple more drops out of summer, enjoying this time with their peers whom they have missed and are now trying to reconnect with. It feels like this is what college is all about and excitement for the school year builds, opening student’s hearts and minds to what is ahead.
It is one of the most exciting and anticipatory times on campus, but for some it serves as a reminder of how different they are, now, than from when they left that space months ago. Instead of excitement being their dominant emotion they feel isolated from the joy their peers seem to bask in as grief and loss run their course. They have come back to campus but they are not the same, something in their lives has changed.
For these students whose summer has been interrupted by loss, grief or crisis, these days of joy and excitement can be difficult and isolating. Regardless of the experience – parents divorcing, a death of a loved one or pet, loss of a home, a community torn apart, a major life event that has altered their story, or a messy and painful breakup, these students are in the midst of their dark night and are walking through the shadow of death – and perhaps they are going unnoticed.
As our academic communities re-adjourn this fall let us remember to support those who are hurting from trauma experienced over the summer. There are many things you and your communities can do, including simply being there for these students, but here are some suggestions that might truly communicate to students in need that you care and can support them through this difficult time.
Create Space for Grief and Lament
This space can be physical or structural. This might mean reserving a hall/campus chapel for those experiencing grief and loss or for those who might want to lift up prayers or lament. It may mean creating space in a morning worship session for moments of remembrance so people can call to mind their grief and allow them to lift thoughts, names, or prayer to God. It may mean offering a space to light candles to honor others, regardless, sacred space is important in working through our grief. I have found that even some of the folks who desire to stay away from religion still are drawn to beautiful, holy things – if you create a space like this people will come.
I remember when our favorite cat passed away. Her illness came on quick and for whatever reason she was not responding to any of the help we obtained for her. When I asked if she was suffering and the vet looked at me with sympathetic loving eyes and told us yes, we knew we had to say goodbye. While enduring such a difficult moment the animal hospital was incredibly helpful and supportive to my family and I. It was both beautiful and amazing how this organization handled death with such incredible dignity.
In the facility there was a beautiful sacred room that had been created for goodbyes and they gave everyone a pet loss journal which for 30 days would walk someone who had experienced the loss of a pet through their grief, while leaving many pages for one’s own lament. Additionally they offered memory days where you could go once a month to the hospital and sit with art therapists who would help you design a memory box or picture frame to remember your little loved one by. Their approach to others grief and lament was holistic as our approach should also be.
Let them know that they are not alone
Especially at a time when students are sharing eagerly their summer adventures with each other, students who have stories of loss or trauma can feel like the odd one out. Because of this it is important that we continue to let our struggling students know that they are not alone – both in grieving on campus and within their own suffering – as Jesus walks with them through every moment, sigh, and tear.
If support groups in your community or on your campus exist, please make sure this resource is widely available. Campus vigils dedicated to loss of loved ones are often held throughout the semester- especially if a student in the college or university community has passed away. Advertising open moments for gathering at a sacred space will also allow your students to see that they are not alone and that others are also on their own journeys towards healing.
Finally, working with the student affairs community on campus or meeting with hall directors briefly at the beginning of the year and sharing about resources from your community or your work will be helpful in promoting opportunities for students to find others who are experiencing loss and grief.
Let them know that their story will not end here
When the moment is right, after much discerning on your part, encourage them to remember that this is not the end of their story, although it may feel like it. Working through loss, grief, and trauma is a long process with many stages, but movement through these stages is very helpful and students will eventually get through all of them.
It is in this place we can evoke the phoenix metaphor; rising from the fire and ash we are transformed, different people who have come back but are not the same. This too adds to our stories and it is important that our students understand this. From my own tradition, and in my work among Catholic and Protestant Christians at the University of Notre Dame, I find it is also important that students know that they are never alone in their suffering, that Jesus was with them every step of the way. In this moment the famous prayer by Thomas Merton is made manifest…
"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."
With open arms and warm hearts let us walk prayerfully with those who have experienced deep loss or trauma over the summer and help them transition well into the school year and beyond.
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