A healing hand

irst of all, I would like to give my sincerest condolence to everyone who is grieving the loss of someone dear to them. I hope you find your way through those hard times. Losing someone and the grieving process that follows can be painful, stressful, confusing and alienating no matter where you are, not least at a place like Williams, where your workload can dominate your schedule, mood and stress levels. Through my experience I have come to believe that displays of grief, sorrow and general unhappiness are not accepted at Williams; that mental health is not given the time and attention it deserves by students, despite efforts by the administration; and that this can exacerbate unhappiness.

When my best friend passed away February last year my world was turned upside down. I spent two weeks at home with friends and family sharing the loss. When I returned to Williams I felt utterly lost and stifled. Being surrounded by people whose lives continue normally while you have just experienced a life-altering event like losing a loved one is very alienating. It is next to impossible to simply go through the daily routine like everyone else when you have emotions and questions about life flying through your mind.
When people asked me how I was doing I couldn’t answer honestly (“terrible” followed by a breakdown would have been my truthful response) because I felt it was inappropriate to constantly be crying in the middle of Paresky or Schow. I wondered whether this taboo could have been a construct of my imagination. However, I have since spoken with many people who have expressed the same resentment towards this suppression – of negative emotion in general and, more particularly, displays of negative emotion – that is part of the Williams culture. When asked how I was doing, I had to lie to others and to myself and say “OK,” so as not to disturb the normal social interactions. I felt that when people asked me how I was doing they did so merely as a formality. Again, this may actually have just been my perception, but to those asking, my countenance surely should have given away that I was not “OK.” Nonetheless, that answer was accepted quickly as they moved on to their next commitment.

I can’t blame people for not stopping to talk, for moving on, given the obscene workloads and pressures we are subjected to as Williams students. I felt guilty whenever I did answer truthfully because I was burdening whomever I was talking to (or crying on) with my unhappiness. I even felt guilty when talking with my closest friend on campus because I was using so much of her time. Surely, I thought, she must have had more “important” things to do like work, athletics or partying. The fact that I could not even talk to my close friends without feeling guilt when I was distressed for a prolonged period of time shows just how pervasive the suppression of emotion by academic time constraints and pressures is. The Williams culture is so filled with academics, athletics and partying that students often fail to address their own mental health or assist their friends, even when they are begging for attention. This neglect to address unhappiness can only prolong and deepen it.

Personally, I was very lucky in that Rick Spalding, chaplain of the College, who is on sabbatical this semester, reached out to me. I started attending his weekly grief support group, Life Raft. As an atheist I was initially worried that it would be a group that focused on or drew on religious teachings extensively. In all my meetings with Rick, though, we never once discussed religion. Meetings were normally just he and I talking. When other students came it was very comforting and helpful to be with someone who was experiencing the grieving process as well. There was none of the structured format that I had associated with the phrase “support group.” These meetings provided and continue to provide a comfortable atmosphere in which I am free to express my emotions and release what had been building up through the week.

I am holding the meetings while Rick is away, so that this open, caring environment remains on our campus. Meetings are every Tuesday from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the O’Connell room in the lower level of Thompson Chapel. I hope that any student or member of the College community who has lost someone, recently or years ago, will join me in discussing personal experiences and the attitudes towards grief on campus, and in supporting one another through very difficult times. Nobody should have to cope with the loss of a loved one alone.