SU chaplains explain ways to cope after campus community deaths

SU chaplains explain ways to cope after campus community deaths

One of the most difficult parts of experiencing death is how it can leave a permanent mark on someone.

Emily Steinberger | Photo Editor

One of the most difficult parts of experiencing death is how it can leave a permanent mark on someone.

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Chaplains at Hendricks Chapel are working to support those mourning the deaths of Syracuse University community members this semester.

Three students — Bridget Lawson, Jack Lundin and Trevor Pierce — and professor Sherri Taylor have died in the past month, representing an overwhelming loss even during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hendricks chaplains said that experiencing so much loss can be emotionally exhausting, and the best way to cope with that loss is to connect with others and find a supportive community.

Dean of Hendricks Chapel Brian Konkol said grief is inevitable when a person dies, even if the person experiencing grief never met the individual who died.

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“Even if someone has lost their life and we didn’t know them personally, oftentimes it’s tempting to personalize it and think about our own loved ones,” Konkol said. “It forces us to think about our own mortality, our own existence. We’re reminded, oftentimes in jarring ways, that our own lives are fragile. Tomorrow is not a promise to anybody.”

Lawson, an SU staff member and graduate student, died at home on Sept. 22. She was 40 years old. Three weeks later, on Oct. 13, Pierce, an SU freshman studying political philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences, died after colliding with an SU trolley while skateboarding down Waverly Avenue.

On Oct. 14, just over 24 hours after Pierce’s death, Lundin, a freshman magazine, news and digital journalism student, died unexpectedly. The cause of Lundin’s death is still unclear.

Taylor, a faculty member in the Newhouse School of Public Communications, died on Oct. 19 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. She was a member of the visual communications department and served as coordinator of scholastic programs at Newhouse.

Rhonda Chester, the United Methodist chaplain at Hendricks, compared grieving the loss of a stranger to watching an emotional movie or television show. Even though the audience doesn’t know the actor or the character personally, they still identify with them and their emotions, Chester said.

“Our definition of knowing one another is based on familiarity — in that you’re friends on Facebook. You’re classmates together. You’re neighbors. You’re family,” Chester said. “But knowing is deeper than that. We know each other. I am you, and you are me. We’re human.”

The deaths of Pierce and Lundin, who were both freshmen, have been especially hard for SU freshmen, Konkol and Chester said.

In times of suffering, grief and sorrow, one of the most important things to get through grief and sorrow is to be connected to community.

Brian Konkol, dean of Hendricks Chapel

One of the most difficult parts of experiencing death is how it can leave a permanent mark on someone, Konkol said. Freshmen experienced the deaths of two classmates during their first few months in college, an already immense transition in their lives, he said.

That’s something current SU freshmen will always carry with them, Konkol said.

“In that educational process there’s already so much development, so much learning, so much change,” Konkol said. “So in the midst of that environment already, then you throw in grief, loss, suffering and sorrow. It’s very jarring.”

Several chaplains also said that experiencing so many deaths during the coronavirus pandemic, which has limited how students can safely grieve, can make the mourning process extremely difficult.

Amir Duric, the Muslim chaplain at Hendricks Chapel, said COVID-19 public health guidelines restrict students’ ability to grieve together in-person, which can be extremely isolating in times of mourning.

“In times of suffering, grief and sorrow, one of the most important things to get through grief and sorrow is to be connected to community,” Konkol said. “When all of the sudden grief, suffering and sorrow is connected to separation, that really exponentially makes it more difficult.”

Many of the chaplains encouraged SU students, faculty and staff to seek out community to share their emotions, even if they must do so virtually or at a distance.

When somebody passes away, even if you don’t know them, you feel this loss of a piece of yourself. You don’t have specific memories of that person, you don’t have that day-to-day relationship with them. But you just feel a loss.

JoAnn Cooke, a Buddhist chaplain at Hendricks

Chester created SU’s Grief Awareness Program when the pandemic began. The program, which has held three sessions this year, provides students with a space to talk about loss and grief, she said.

While Chester was not expecting to have so many unexpected deaths in the SU community this year, she said the program has helped students express their emotions, which is an important part of the grieving process.

“What is not expressed is depressed or suppressed,” Chester said. “That is the common way that people deal with darker emotions. You don’t want to talk about it. You don’t want to feel it because it’s so uncomfortable, and so we don’t talk about it because we don’t want to feel it. That doesn’t help.”

JoAnn Cooke, a Buddhist chaplain at Hendricks, said it’s also important to feel connected to the person who has died, even if you didn’t know them personally. Writing to the person or creating a memorial in their memory may allow people to come to peace with the fact that they are gone.

The day after Pierce’s death, students set up a memorial with flowers and pictures of Pierce at the intersection of Waverly and Comstock avenues. The university also installed plaques outside Hendricks to commemorate Lundin and Pierce and organized a virtual vigil to honor all four community members who have died.

“When somebody passes away, even if you don’t know them, you feel this loss of a piece of yourself,” Cooke said. “You don’t have specific memories of that person. You don’t have that day-to-day relationship with them. But you just feel a loss.”

Students and faculty who are grieving should use all of the resources available to them, Konkol said. These can include seeking professional help, such as talking to a chaplain at Hendricks or a counselor at the Barnes Center at The Arch, or they may include smaller steps, such as sending someone a text, writing a letter or taking a walk.

It is important for people who are grieving to be gentle with themselves and accept their emotions rather than ignore them, Konkol said. The goal of the grieving process is not to make that grief go away, but rather to accept that it is an inevitable part of being human, Konkol said.

“Grief is a natural and predictable consequence of love,” he said. “One sure-fire way to never grieve is to never love.”

Free confidential 24-hour support is available at The Barnes Center at The Arch at 315-443-8000. Students can also schedule counseling appointments at Hendricks Chapel by calling 315-443-2901.

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