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Wednesday, Jan 19, 2022

When it comes to grief, Middlebury is no bubble


Sabrina Templeton

We hear time and time again that Middlebury is a “bubble.” It’s a liberal bubble, a student bubble, a cultural bubble. All of this talk pushes us into believing that we really are protected; that we live in a campus that can hold us in and push danger out. 

A bubble implies that the global pandemic that has taken 500,000 lives in the U.S. — and counting — could not possibly affect a Middlebury student, or that the coinciding mental health epidemic could not have driven any of our loved ones to take their own lives, or that loss by any other means could never touch a person who appears so wrapped up in this perfect, tight, safe bubble. 

This is not true. Obviously. But if you look through any of our welcome-back emails it sure seems like it.

Before diving into my frustrations it is important to note that the administration and staff deserve a ton of credit for their handling of campus life during the pandemic. Our testing process is seamless, the incredible staff members have made the dining halls accessible and welcoming and our maintenance and facilities staff have made sure that this campus feels safe and clean. 

However, even with all of these efforts, the existence of grieving students on this campus feels almost entirely washed over. When we returned I expected, at the very least, a school wide email acknowledging the certainly higher than usual amount of grief on this campus. That didn’t happen. I believed we would receive some information on who to reach out to if we’re experiencing grief. That didn’t happen. I thought that the school, with all of its mental health expansion efforts, would make a more visible effort to hire grief-specific counselors. To my knowledge, this hasn’t happened either. 

There has been positive growth in discussing mental health crises on this campus in the past four years, and that has not gone unnoticed. However, grief is a different beast altogether, and to try to lump it in with other types of suffering is short-sighted and misinformed. 

Not only is grief emotionally debilitating — contrary to outdated beliefs, you can’t just skip through some stages until you reach blissful acceptance — but it is also cognitively altering. 

A study out of the NIH found that individuals suffering from “complicated grief” — which can be caused by having little time to process or no social support following the loss, essentially the experience of every loss during this pandemic — have lower memory and attention capabilities, perform worse on tests and display mild defects in global cognitive functioning.

If the school is not ready to send out mental health kits that consist of more than just a fidget spinner, I would at least expect Middlebury — as an academic institution — to understand that grieving students do not currently possess the same neurological capacities that they did prior to their loss. 

This is to say: Middlebury, many of your students are not only grieving; our brains’ capacities have changed.  

And yet, when it comes to grief on campus, we’ve heard nothing from our college. 

After four years at Middlebury, I am lucky in that I feel comfortable enough telling many of my professors what I am going through right now. I also have the love and support of the Hillel community and the wonderful Rabbi Danielle. But, even as a second semester senior I did not know that I should have told my dean about my struggles until another staff member suggested it to me. 

If I had no clue I should reach out to him, how on earth could younger students be expected to know, especially, again, after receiving no guidance whatsoever from the school? I am also very fortunate that I have a good relationship with my commons dean. I can’t say the same for other students, especially students who’ve never met their dean in person due to the pandemic. 

I empathize deeply with students who feel utterly lost in the dark, not knowing who to reach out to, or how to navigate grief. I also feel for the friends of grieving students who have no idea how to be a supportive friend during this traumatic and delicate time. 

This is because, despite a global pandemic raging outside, the college has proliferated little to no grief resources on campus, has not given any public recognition of grieving students, has not given any guidance on who to reach out to if grieving students are struggling with workloads, and has not made a noticeable effort to hire grief-specific counselors on campus or on Midd Telehealth. And, before you suggest we organize these things ourselves, please refer to the above paragraph about our brains not working

This lack of recognition from our institution is not only frustrating but is actively compounding the pain. Grief is an agonizing ordeal, with one of its worst qualities being loneliness. And, although the college has been trying much harder this year to ensure access to mental health professionals, its failure to address the campus-wide issue of grieving head-on makes those of us suffering feel like an afterthought; like we have to cope with it alone. 

Of course, there have always been grieving students on this campus, but for the college to act publicly as if nobody here has lost someone during a pandemic is a whole new level of ignorance — an ignorance that comes with more than a tinge of classism and racism, as we all know Covid has disproportionately affected lower income and BIPOC communities.

So, what can be done?

Professors can send out anonymous surveys asking whether their students are experiencing loss and how they can reconfigure their schedule to allow for students to get the most out of the class without feeling overwhelmed. 

Midd Telehealth can hire specific grief counselors trained to aid students in working through loss and trauma. It can also expand its free sessions from 12 per year to 20, allowing for students who cannot afford counseling to have access to as many sessions as possible.

The administration can send resources to grieving students as well as to their friends on how best to be a support system at this time.  

And, since I only just found out about this, grieving students reading this article — do not be afraid to reach out to your student life deans. They are here to help you and can be wonderful resources and advocates for you during this time. 

Middlebury has done a remarkable job this year given the circumstances, but seemingly ignoring the existence and struggles of grieving students is an enormous blindspot that will only continue to grow if it is not recognized. For the school to be able to truly celebrate its accomplishments during the pandemic with any integrity, they have to make sure that the college remains a place where its students can genuinely learn, engage and grow. Too many students can’t do that right now.

We may be back on campus, but we are not back in the “bubble.” The outside world caught up to us, and we need you to meet us where we are. 

Author’s note: These opinions stem from my personal experience as well as from anecdotal conversations with peers. I don’t pretend to know the experience of every grieving student on campus. 

Sophie Clark is a member of the class of 2021.