Eight students died last year at the University of Waterloo. I should clarify that: eight students in the Engineering department alone. I don’t know the total number across campus. I don’t know much about the cause of death, either, though I understand only one of the eight was by suicide. It feels strange to say that I take a kind of cold comfort from that fact.
I hesitate to begin a guest editorial with such a heavy opening line. There’s something a little lurid about wading right in like that. Plus, we do seem to talk about campus crises a lot, likely because the chattering class is a highly educated one; of course, grief and loss and mental health crises are every bit as common off campus, too. That said, the juxtaposition of life and death on a university campus is quite stark. Campuses are cities of the young, full of expectations and optimism and dreams of the future (especially the case at my own technocratic parish). Save for the occasional philosophy class that explores death, campus folks aren’t fluent at speaking in a register that acknowledges grief and mortality.
Back in the loop
I learned of these losses earlier this summer on a Microsoft Teams call with a couple of “Wellness Coordinators” who work in the Engineering department. They’re a lovely, compassionate duo who seek to create opportunities for students and staff to thrive on campus – community initiatives, resiliency seminars, mental health workshops and the like. Not all that dissimilar to my work, save for one fact: their realization that responding to and memorializing such loss was way above their pay grade.
So, they reached out to the chaplaincy. That’s what organizations do in times like these, right? Well, that’s not entirely true, though it might’ve been that way decades back. In my tenure, we’ve largely been left out of the loop when it comes to these sorts of campus crises. There’s plenty of reasons for that – an ardent secularism, worries about proselytization, a sense that religious leaders don’t have much to offer that counselling services can’t cover.
But now, suddenly, we find ourselves brought back in. I told my Wellness Coordinator friends that I was at their service, and would readily lead memorials and attend to the grief and sense of loss that follows in their wake. That willingness has spilled over into other opportunities for helping this campus navigate grief this fall.
To tend grieving souls
I’ve been blessedly surprised by this, though that feels a little strange to say, too. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, though – this pandemic has brought much to the fore; things we wouldn’t have normally contemplated or given much thought to are right in front of us now. Death, loss and grief are chief among them. Maybe too is a sense – some vestigial memory perhaps – that those things demand a meaning-making attention that our own therapeutic, self-actualized, technocratic age can’t offer. So, bring in the religious folks again, they seem to know what they’re doing.
I don’t know if all that’s true, but I’m hopeful it might be. Because if that’s one of the places the pandemic and its attendant losses has brought us, what an opportunity! Churches have often resembled university campuses as of late, insofar as we are also youth-obsessed, earnest purveyors of a kind of bright-sided, optimized lifestyle. At least that’s how we try to get folks back in the pews. And fine – you need a bit of that. But more than that, we exist to tell the world the power of drawing near to Christ and Him crucified. Which is to say, death and grief are part of the story. And that leaves us well-situated to tend to the longing, grieving souls in our midst, souls for whom that story – obliquely, fleetingly, in flashes and glimpses – may be once again taking on the resonance of truth.
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