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Monday, Feb 26, 2024

Grieving as a community

Content Warning: This article contains mention of suicide. 

Last Friday, one of our editors sat down to breakfast at Ross, where two students proceeded to sit next to her. They appeared visibly frustrated. It was unclear why, until one of them asked, “Why is no one talking about this?” The “this” then became immediately apparent. 

The “this” was the passing of Yan — or Lisa —  Zhou ’23, who died of an apparent suicide eight days ago, on Oct. 20. She was a junior who loved linguistics, Quidditch, and her parrot named Murphy. Many of you knew her. Many of you didn’t. And most of you probably crossed paths with her without knowing it, a spare glance from behind your mask in Proc or during a forgotten elective in freshman year.

We, as a Board, like most of the student body, have continued on with our daily routines and coursework. We perhaps questioned this, but continued nonetheless. And as we did, confused and conflicted about what to do and what to feel, no one around us seemed to be talking to it. It became silent grief for many of us, and it remained unclear how or when it would be processed. 

For those of us who had professors who discussed Yan’s death openly in class, we hadn’t realized how much a transparent dialogue was needed. For someone to say something, anything, felt radical in our small universe in which many seemed to be hurting alone. For some, grief had become silenced and compartmentalized —  like no one else seemed to be thinking or talking about it. 

We hope that in the coming days and weeks and months, we start talking about death and suicide and mourning —  and that we don’t stop. These conversations shouldn’t be radical, but instead normalized. So often we interpret the processes of grief and healing as individualistic. Grief is understood as something that should be divided into neatly delineated spaces, like within the private, confidential walls of a therapist’s office, so as not to permeate other aspects of life and interfere with our routines and productivity. There is an unspoken pressure to “push on” because life and the workweek go on too, regardless of whether or not we want to.

But where is the recourse for those who feel that it is impossible for life to continue normally and to whom every evidence that it does feels like an affront?

This group may include many people on campus: Yan’s friends and professors, those struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental illness, anyone grieving a suicide or death of a loved one. 

Those who were not personally affected may feel as if they don’t “deserve” to grieve, or that it would be selfish to express a level of grief when it pales in comparison to the grief of those close to Yan. 

We hope that all members of this community can come to recognize their reactions are valid and genuine. We as a Board also hope that Middlebury can embrace, even in small ways, grieving as a communal and collective occurrence. That we can acknowledge that even if this death isn’t impacting you as grief, that doesn’t mean it isn’t impacting you. 

Our editorial meeting this week was the longest in recent memory. For most of us, this was the only space that we had available to speak about Yan — and what her memory meant to our community. Coming in, many of us felt nervous or uncomfortable, but we left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude that bordered on relief. In essence, it was an immense privilege, the closest thing we felt to community healing. 

We urge our fellow students, if they feel ready, to create safe space for intentional and vulnerable conversation as well. Many students, like us, may not know they need to grieve until they start doing so. These feelings are not something that happen linearly or in one sitting — like most of our other daily tasks, this is not a process that can be checked off a list. 

We want to acknowledge that, along with this grief, for many there is anger — anger at perceived inaction in the face of a mental health crisis, at the institutional failing indicated in the death of a student by suicide, at the way we are expected to just carry on after a tragic loss. Many of us feel it too, and, as a Board, promise we will further discuss the changes this campus so badly needs. 

The Middlebury community is unlike any we will ever encounter again. We learn together, live together, eat together, party together and study together. One of the most important things we can do now is practice caring for one another. 

Just like you, we are unsure. These words might mean nothing to you right now — or ever — and that’s OK. But they’re what we have to offer right now, and we’re using them to express the moment of light and grace we’ve uncovered amidst disorientation. 

Even if you didn’t know Yan, and you aren’t grieving Yan, we still encourage you to talk about her death. Everything you might be feeling — unfamiliarity and heartbreak — everything in between, warrants a chance to be heard and empathized with. We hope, that in continuing to talk about Yan, we can both preserve her memory and seek to forge a community that destigmatizes mental health struggles and suicide in particular. We hope that as a community, we will be able to heal together.

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