When Death Strikes at the Happiest Campus in America
When the Princeton Review praised Vanderbilt University for having the happiest students in America for the second year in a row in 2015,1 thousands of students, alums, and faculty oozed with pride about our latest award. However, in the 12 months that followed, a horrific streak of loss and grief fell over our campus. From July 2015 to July 2016, 5 undergraduate students and 4 graduate students passed away. The deaths of Patrick Dugan, Sang Han, Cheryl “Alex” Morris, Elliot Meister, Donny Everett, Taylor Force, Skylar Haws, Justin Shults and Stephanie Shults2 haunted all members of the Vanderbilt community. In an interview with The Tennessean, Chancellor Zeppos commented about the loss of Taylor Force, “For me as a chancellor to lose a child – it’s really the worst thing to happen.” Taylor Force, a student at Owen Graduate School of Business Management, was killed last March in a terrorist attack while in Israel.3 Overall, the Vanderbilt community has suffered an immense amount of heartbreak this year. Experiencing this much loss has had an immeasurable effect on the culture of Vanderbilt and, in some ways, has brought the Vanderbilt community closer. It has brought together unlikely friends of those who passed while allowing the stigma around students’ mental health to take the lead in the of the minds of administration. Coping can be difficult during times like this, but there are many outlets through which people can begin to find peace.
Suicide on College Campuses In a report produced by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US; moreover, each year more than 40,000 Americans die by suicide.4 According to a study done by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State referenced in a New York Times article, there has been an increase in suicide of nearly 13% in just two years.5 While the reason for this increase is unclear, these are devastating figures for anyone to hear. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center reports that 7.1-7.7% of undergraduates have seriously considered suicide, and 3.4% of students have made a plan to complete suicide or have attempted suicide.6 There is no grade, no person, no test, and no club office that is worth taking your own life. Billy Graham addressed suicide in a question & answer session one way, “Whenever someone writes to say they’re thinking about taking their own life, I wish I could sit down with them and do everything I possibly could to encourage them and persuade them not to take that final, drastic step. No matter how hard life has gotten, I know that with God there is hope.”7 Suicide on college campuses is such an understated problem that it makes coping that much harder when it occurs close to home.
When Suicide Strikes
On Thursday, April 21, 2016, the week before spring finals, I made plans to attend Zumba at the Rec Center with Alex Morris. She never showed up.
On Friday, April 22, 2016, I received the email telling me that Cheryl “Alex” Alexandra Morris had passed away. She was the best friend I had made at Vanderbilt, and she left a major impact on all of those who she befriended. As someone who had struggled to fit in socially at Vanderbilt, I was in shock trying to imagine my Vanderbilt life without her.
It’s now Fall of 2016, and I still cannot come close to describing the gut-wrenching pain that came across my body while I read that email. I still remember every single moment as if it was yesterday. I slammed the computer shut, stepped away from my desk, and my entire body began to shake. I couldn’t hold the tears back. My breathing was heavy and uneven. My head was spinning and I didn’t know what to do, think, or say. The days that followed were a blur. I went home for the weekend, but my mind was somewhere else. After returning to Vanderbilt, the academic world did not provide time to grieve, so I had to move on quickly. The worst was yet to come, however, as my final exam was in Chemistry, the class I had with Alex. Studying was nearly impossible because I cried at the memory of our study sessions, our mutual frustrations about the class, and our enduring hope that we could both make “B’s”. I’d like to think Alex was with me in that exam, because I came out of General Chemistry with the B we both wanted.
Survivors of suicide often don’t know how to begin coping after the loss of a loved one, friend, or acquaintance. When people are faced with trauma, sometimes their only choices are “fight or flight”; other times the coping process may be a constant battle between the two that contains distractions from the hurt, displacement of their anger, or a search for complete removal from what is really happening. As I learned from a Project Safe staff member, people undergoing trauma often remember random, seemingly useless pieces of information to distract from their feelings. This can project their anger at the situation onto something (or someone) else, provide a semi-permanent reason for the hurt they’re feeling, or allow the pain to be temporarily distracted by something completely irrelevant. For me, it was the Dean of Student’s lack of using Alex’s nickname on the mass email; it was the socks I never returned to her that she let me borrow for chemistry lab, and it was the last-minute study session I was too busy to attend with her. Even if it was just in that initial moment of shock, I could temporarily displace my anger to a new subject and not blame myself. For me personally, I found so much emotional support in the verse below because it provides a powerful sense of hope that God can provide the peace to continue through life.
Revelation 21:4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
This verse was instrumental to me for many reasons. For one, Revelation 21:4 showed me it is okay to cry because there will be mourning, sorrow, and pain when we lose someone close to us. It tells us that God will wipe the tears, sorrow, and hurt away. We do not have to worry anymore because “the old order of things has passed away”, and we know we will finally gain peace when the time is right. Regardless of someone’s personal coping methods, this verse can give hope for the future and peace in knowing God has a plan. According to the University of Texas at Austin Counselling and Mental Health Center Suicide Prevention Program, grief is a multi-staged process, but the coping process itself varies for each individual person.8 Many people go through shock, denial, guilt, sadness, anger, and acceptance, but that is not always the case. They may go through stages and say things like “I think it was my fault”, “Why bother doing anything?” “How could they do this to me?” or “I feel numb”. For me, I was in complete denial for a long period of time that Alex had completed suicide. I don’t remember when I found out it was a suicide (I think I have mentally blocked that moment since then), but I couldn’t believe it for a long time. Alex was so happy, enthusiastic, so kind, so caring; there’s NO WAY she would kill herself, right? Her death was an accident. Period. I denied that it was suicide for a long time, but eventually I had to believe that she’s happier wherever she is now. Until I found out about her long-term battle with depression, I had completely convinced myself that this was some kind of huge mistake. With some chronic illnesses, death sometimes relieves them of a misery that you could not heal. With a tragic accident, you see a catastrophe that could not have been prevented. With suicide, there is no resolution. There is no denouement, Nicholas Sparks-worthy ending, or closing epilogue to clear things up. You’re left with hundreds of unanswered questions and thousands of “what-if?” statements. All you’re given is a set of unexplained emotions that will haunt you indefinitely. The hardest thing about suicide is that there is no end to moving on.
Coping: Do it Your Own Way
Even at the “Happiest Campus in America”, it is okay to be sad. It is okay to take time to focus on yourself amidst a tragedy. It is okay to be hurt, sad, or mad until you are finally ready to move on. No one will blame you for allowing yourself to heal. No matter what tests, classes, or events you may have coming up, self-care is crucial to your own well-being. You don’t have to put on a happy face simply because other people don’t seem to be as affected as you are; they may just be coping differently than you. This verse in John 16 gave me the acceptance I needed to take time to grieve and let the pain settle before I tried to prematurely force myself to move on with my life.
So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.
No matter how long “your time of grief” lasts, it’s important to know that is it acceptable to take the necessary time to grieve, and you’re free to spend this in the way that best suits you. Regardless of what this process looks like for you, your coping method must mold to your individual needs to shape your future life without this person; moreover, these needs may be very different for different people.
For some people, coping includes support groups, counsellors, therapists, and other mentors providing emotional support. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provides countless support groups and a Survivor Outreach Program, where survivors of suicide can find support in other survivors. Whether you turn to a professor, religious leader, mentor, or someone else, it is important to realize that there is no “right” way to cope; you are allowed to cope in whatever way you see fit. The Mayo Clinic’s “End of Life” sector recommends staying in contact with family and friends, making time and a space for yourself, and ensuring that you take time away from work/school if you need it.9 Regardless of the coping mechanism you use, it is instrumental that survivors take care of themselves in whatever way necessary, and make sure to reach out if needed.
For me, my recovery is scattered. There are days where I don’t think about it and other days I am haunted by the question of how I could have prevented it. What if I didn’t share Jesus with her? What if I could’ve prevented this? What if she didn’t think she could talk to me? Why didn’t I notice? Was it something I did? All of these questions can be changed into one all-encompassing question: What could I have done differently to stop this from happening? I drove myself crazy trying to remember every conversation we ever had, and whether I missed something or did something wrong. I questioned my ability to be a good friend, and I pushed everyone around me away out of fear. There are still days I feel like the worst person in the world because I didn’t stop it. There are other days I feel at peace because I know she is in a better place in heaven sitting beside Jesus. There are days I want to call her and vent about my professor that didn’t curve my grade, complain the gym was crowded, or talk to her about friend drama. I’ve learned that you continue through life with pieces of that person integrated into your daily life, and the “moving on” process never really ends.
Although the Bible provides many passages for dealing with loss of a loved one, this doesn’t make coping easy; however, I found peace in using this as my mechanism. In 1 Corinthians 15, the Bible showed me a glimmer of hope: death is not the end. These verses provide some relief to those who have lost a loved one. Whether you believe in Christianity or not, these verses provide insight on the potential for life after death and give hope for something beyond the grave.
1 Corinthians 15:51-58:
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you.
According to the Bible, Jesus took the power away from death by dying on the cross to save our sins. His choice to live a sinless life and still die a sinner’s death gives us the opportunity to take “victory” over death. The sting of death is no more. Although there is certainly comfort because “death has lost its sting” because Jesus died on the cross for Alex & me, that did not make the loss of Alex any easier. When depression leads someone to suicide, it can be very tough to take in.
Depression is a medical diagnosis that affects the physical and mental state of someone’s body. According to the University of California, Berkeley’s Health Services, clinical depression has a biological component that can be linked to changes in the chemical processes and function of neurotransmitters that monitor brain function.10 Moreover, these processes can cause detrimental changes in the mental and emotional state of a person. In addition, changes in the mental and emotional state of a person can cause equally problematic physical changes. Spiritual health, whether religious-based or not, is an integral part of the mental and emotional health of a person. The University of California, Riverside Wellness Center defines spiritual health as your faith, values, beliefs, morals, and principles.11 If both of these causes are not addressed, true treatment of depression is nearly impossible in most cases. An article written by a Christian who struggled with depression put it this way, “I think Christians often make the mistake of over-spiritualizing depression and neglecting the very real physical needs of a person caught in depression’s grip, while non-Christians tend to focus too much on the physical aspects of this condition while neglecting spiritual health.”12 When discussing the physical and emotional needs of those handling depression, it is equally important to discuss the emotional and physical needs of those who are coping with loss of a loved one. Some of these needs include a need to understand “why”, a need to distract yourself from then pain, non-judgemental support, a safe and supportive environment, or even just someone to talk to. For me, the following verses in Thessalonians have helped to trudge through my dense emotional struggle.
1 Thessalonians 4:13:
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
This passage is pretty dense to decrypt, but it has nuggets of hope and help lying within it. Holly Hearon, a professor of a Christian Theological Seminary school in Indianapolis, said this: “What they describe in 4:13-18 presumably instilled new hope in the Thessalonians. For us, however, it may simply sound strange. What are we to make of this apocalyptic scenario in which Christ descends from the clouds with a cry of command, and the sound of a trumpet, and lifts the faithful up into heaven? Are we required to take this at face value as a description of what is to come?”13 She goes on to say that the real reason behind these verses may not be Jesus coming down from Heaven with trumpets. Rather, is to show us that God has not forgotten us. Maybe it is comforting for you to think of Jesus coming down with angels, music, and trumpets blaring to help you; maybe it is more comforting for you to just imagine a being that is ever-present in times of need. It is important to interpret this in the way that is most beneficial to your own coping experience.
As someone who struggled to find my “friend group” at Vanderbilt, knowing I had lost such a close friend was horrific; therefore, I found peace especially in verses that made me aware I was not alone to grieve: I enjoy the comfort of believing God was with me. In looking for verses that addressed these things, Romans 8, Colossians 2, and Psalm 116 comforted me in my time of being emotionally overwhelmed with grief.
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else above all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.
Psalm 116:15 I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live. The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came over me; I was overcome by distress and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the Lord: “Lord, save me!” The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion. The Lord protects the unwary; when I was brought low, he saved me. Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.
Molding Your Future
When you go through trauma, you must find your individualized plan to cope. For me, I looked to the Bible and its contents to help me move on. In each of the verses I presented, the Bible says again and again that God is there for me. In Revelation 21:4, God showed me that He will wipe the tears from my eyes when the immediate sorrow passes. In Corinthians, this verse demonstrates that death loses its grip because Jesus died for me. In John, 1 Thessalonians, and Romans, I saw that nothing can separate me from God’s unending support and love. In Colossians and Psalms, I saw that God is an ever-present help when I am in need. Although these verses are scattered throughout the Bible, I found hope in words saying God is here with me through every step. This is the best way I have found to deal with my inundating emotions. While you are coping with loss, you must find your own personalized coping mechanism.
When someone commits suicide, there are unanswered questions, hurt, and pain that can’t be resolved. There are family members pleading for answers they may never receive, and friends that blame themselves. Suicide is more than a tragedy. It is an unresolved question with no hope of an answer. It is an unfinished puzzle that is missing the center pieces. It is a song without a chorus. It is a car without a transmission. It can be hell for those left behind. I found hope in God to help me through my time of grieving. If you or someone you know had struggled with depression or thoughts of suicide, it will get better. You should never feel as though you have to face this alone. If you’re struggling with depression, thoughts of suicide, grief from loss, or anything else, please reach out for help; you are not alone.
Psychological Counsellor Center: 615-322-2571 Crisis Hotline: 615-244-7444 Project Safe 24- Hour Crisis Hotline: 615-322-SAFE (615-322-7233) Let’s Talk sessions: (free, no-appointment-needed, sessions with a counsellor) Vanderbilt Law School 043K: Tuesdays 2:30-4:30 pm Saratt Student Center 208: Wednesdays 2:30-4:30 pm Commons Center 215: 2:45-4:45
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3 Tamburin, A. (2016, May). Vanderbilt's Nicholas Zeppos tackles controversies, growth. Retrieved October 27, 2016, from http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2016/04/30/vanderbilts-nicholas-zeppos-student-deaths-weigh-heaviest/78644792/
4 Suicide Statistics — AFSP. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2016, from https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/
5 Scelfo, J. (2015). Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection. Retrieved October 27, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/education/edlife/stress-social-media-and-suicide-on-campus.html
6 Suicide Prevention Resource Center. (2012). Suicide among College and University Students in the United States. Retrieved November 7, 2016, from http://www.sprc.org/sites/default/files/migrate/library/SuicideAmongCollegeStudentsInUS.pdf
7 Chismar, J. (September 9, 2010). Godly Wisdom for Suicide Prevention. Retrieved November 7, 2016, from https://billygraham.org/story/godly-wisdom-for-suicide-prevention/SuicideAmongCollegeStudentsInUS.pdf
8 University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center. Helping a Student Who Has Lost a Friend or Family Member to Suicide. Retrieved November 7, 2016, from https://cmhc.utexas.edu/bethatone/studentscopingsuicide.html
9 The Mayo Clinic. Suicide grief: Healing after a loved one’s suicide. Retrieved November 7, 2016, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/end-of-life/in-depth/suicide/art-20044900
10 University of California Berkley University Health Services. Clinical Depression. Retrieved November 7, 2016, from https://uhs.berkeley.edu/health-topics/mental-health/clinical-depression
12 Neumair, K. (2013). I Was A Suicidal Christian. Retrieved October 27, 2016, from http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/practical-faith/i-was-suicidal-christian
13 Hearon, H. (November 6, 2011). Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Retrieved November 7, 2016, from https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1053