Lessons in Grieving

Preparing for Finals, Perhaps a Little Differently

Claudine Michel, UCSB’s assistant vice chancellor of Student Affairs, spoke to a group of faculty, staff, and teaching assistants (TAs) on May 28, the morning after the memorial held at Harder Stadium, as part of the university’s outreach work.

Gone with the wind.” These were a mother’s words during the memorial at Harder Stadium.

I speak today with a heavy heart. As our Academic Senate Chair Kum-Kum Bhavnani said yesterday at the beautiful memorial, these were OUR children. Young lives cut short. Lives shattered, dreams deferred, families broken, communities in mourning, promises unfulfilled. As educators, their dreams are our dreams. Their accomplishments are our rewards. Tragedies like these leave us questioning, searching, grieving. We mourn our students. We mourn our children. Twice in my career, I was called to speak at students’ funerals. That is not the normal order of things. These deaths hurt.

I speak to you today primarily as someone who has spent 30 years in the classroom but also as a student affairs officer who more than ever understands the complex realities that our young students face in a world that is not always kind, in a world that is not always just or inclusive. In a world that divides, in a world that has lost some of its humanity. In a world where some of our young people carry guns and seek to destroy.

As educators, it is our duty to probe not only these societal ills but also the very conditions that create those situations that would not be too hard to fix if we work hard enough to make our planet more humane, more just. Misogyny, hatred of various forms, injustice, fractured families, greed, racism, racial profiling, unfair laws, the rise of the prison industrial complex, land and border disputes, homophobia, religious intolerance, moral decadence, and dispirited societies are the enemies, not our youth. These societal ills create the kind of young people who do not respect lives. This is what we ought to combat, as this will save the next generations.

Let us reenter our classrooms with a renewed sense of purpose and resolve, let us create a new world that will honor Katie Cooper, Veronika Weiss, Weihan “David” Wang, Christopher Michaels-Martinez, George Chen, and James Cheng-Yuan Hong, their blood, and the sacrifice of their young lives.

I feel very strongly about the tragic events of the past week. Young deaths were frequent occurrences when I was growing up. I come from Haiti, a country that has suffered injustice, violence, imperialism — all in excess. A country where 300,000 lives were lost when the country suffered a 7.0 quake on the Richter scale — many babies and numerous youth died in a country where over 50 percent of the population is under 20. A quake of the same magnitude killed fewer than 100 a month later in Chile. Natural disasters happen; subhuman living conditions kill. As a youth in Haiti, often, three to four times a year perhaps, a student would not return to class after a weekend, taken by a fever or some other benign condition for which a few dollars to purchase medicine would have been the remedy. To date, I still feel the pain of losing those classmates.

In my first year of teaching in Black Studies here at UCSB, there was this young woman in my class — I can see her joyful round face, smiling, always asking questions, sometimes offering to carry my bag, the old-fashioned way as students and teachers often did in the past — Debbie was her name. That Thursday, she tried to talk to me after class. I had a doctor’s appointment and could not stay. We made an appointment for the next day. That night she was gone. Suicide. I remember the pain and agony I went through dealing with my own guilt of not having stayed to talk to her, having left without hearing her. So I do understand the agony that some of you will face this week as you enter a classroom with one empty seat, with those questioning eyes now closed, with one smiling face “gone with the wind.” My heart goes out to those of you who are where I was 30 years ago. At that time, I worked hard to offer the best support I could to Debbie’s grieving peers, crushed and lost over that lost life. Today we have Counseling and Psychological Services to support our faculty, staff, and our students. Please use their services. Refer your students to these wonderful psychologists and mental health professionals.

If I may end with a few suggestions of my own. Be real. Be honest about your feelings. Give students space to grieve. Support them as individuals as not everyone grieves in the same way or at the same pace. Help them return to their studies, assist them as they return to some level of normalcy, to a routine. Encourage them to reclaim their space, here at UCSB, in Isla Vista. Remind them of their dreams. Prepare for graduation. Take care of yourself and also real good care of our students, our children. As [Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs] Michael Young often says … whenever I see one of our students, I always try to remember, “This is someone’s baby.” Today, some of our UCSB parents have lost their “babies,” and we grieve with them and for them.

Universities are by nature open, progressive, forward-looking places. This new normal will require different ways of thinking, different modes of questioning that go deep, and perhaps even new ways of delivering instruction and final examinations. This new normal will require adjustment, flexibility, patience, and lots of love. We appreciate your commitment to our students and thank you for being nurturing faculty and TAs during this very difficult moment for our campus. Thank you for being part of this journey with us as we celebrate the lives of our students who left us, in spirit, with deeds and action, as we bring order to chaos and restore selves and communities.

Not one more.” These were a father’s words, and these are our words. Never again. Not one more!

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