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Carrying the Memory: Handling Death at Harvard

By Jordan R. Robbins, Crimson Opinion Writer
Jordan R. Robbins, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House. His column “What Some Harvard Students Don't Know …” appears on alternate Thursdays.

What some Harvard students might not know is how some students have experienced traumatic loss, impacting their psyche and interaction style with other students.

January 2020: My father suffered a sudden stroke in Phoenix, Ariz. I was living in Indiana. Per Arizona law, without a spouse, adult children must make any medical decisions for an adult patient unable to make or communicate health care treatment decisions for themself. Thus, my sister and I booked an immediate flight to Arizona. After a week in the hospital, he was deemed brain dead. He never spoke a word during that week or showed signs of awareness. We were left with the final decision to call his death, determine whether he would be an organ donor, and book a flight back home, all of which occurred in the span of twelve hours.

Traumatic loss is not uncommon amongst college students. In a 2010 study of randomly selected college students, 22 percent to 30 percent were indicated to have experienced the death of a family member or friend within the past 12 months. That number jumps to 39 percent when expanding the time-frame to 24 months. This means that death is not unfamiliar on college campuses, Ivy Leagues included.

May 2020: I learned that I was accepted to Harvard. I had taken a gap year from 2019 to 2020 and was very uncertain, not only in my academic skills, but also in my ability to leave home. After the death of my father, I held irrational fears that death loomed, out to get another family member the moment I left. I feared waking up in the morning and receiving a similar call that a family member was hospitalized, only for me to be across the country. But in the same vein, I was incredibly driven to succeed at college, especially acknowledging that I would be making my father proud.

Students are forced to untangle grief and trauma on top of the “stress culture” that college already creates. In the semester following a close death, they tend to experience decreased academic performance and a higher risk for comorbid mental health concerns. Considering that complicated grief can remain for an indeterminable period of time, it is difficult for students to comprehend their “new normal.” Students attest to needing help without ever truly seeking it, further proving the difficulty in socializing post-loss.

August 2020: I started my college career online. And this might have been for the better, especially considering my worries of not being around family in the unlikely occurrence that they died. But, there were days when I was paralyzed by grief. Thanks to Covid-19, I was neither challenged to make social contacts nor challenged to partake in campus culture from nearly 1,000 miles away. Isolation eased its way into my routine, and I was simultaneously avoiding my feelings by doing schoolwork. I was stabilizing at the expense of my sociability.

While there are recommendations for actionable ways to provide support for students who face traumatic death, they seem futile for some students like myself. For others, counselling resources and education by university administration is what helps them most. The pain in losing someone is inescapable. Pain can lessen; it can temper; it can ebb; but it will never go away. Consequently, with varying degrees of pain, there are varying mourning processes and different approaches that best address them.

January 2021: Somewhat impulsively, I moved away from home (closer to campus), and I was forced to battle complex grief on a more personal level. In my first year without my father, I still found myself crying in obscure moments and obscure places. I could reach out to my sister or my mom, but I found my composure steadying quicker the more I learned to face my sadness independently. Eventually, I was able to meet others at Harvard with similar grief: the loss of a parent, of a grandparent, of a close friend, or of a distant relative. I may have felt isolated, but I felt oddly reassured by knowing I was not alone in the grieving process at campus.

The loss of a loved one is unfathomable. It has the capacity to psychologically, socially, academically, and physically alter an individual. On campus, Harvard students without this traumatic grief must understand the irregular moments of sadness, anger, and numbness that students who have complex grief face.

November 2021: I can say that I have learned to balance the good and bad of grief with equanimity. Recalling the unique moments I shared with my dad, like singing “Watching You” by Rodney Atkins or making baked mac-and-cheese or buying cheap cereal boxes for the toys, I tear up — less out of sadness and more out of fondness. As I near his two-year death anniversary, I wonder less about what he would think of me now if he were still alive. Instead, I consider how I will continue to think of him then. How I will continue to memorize him, eternalize him, and love him in his absence.

Jordan R. Robbins, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House. His column “What Some Harvard Students Don't Know …” appears on alternate Thursdays.

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