Opinions, Column

BC Must Change How It Handles Grief

The discrepancy between what Boston College teaches and what it often does is where, I believe, the “men and women for others” mantra falls short. At a Jesuit institution, every message the administration sends is significant, particularly when it concerns the well-being and comportment of its students. We are held up to high standards of emotional sophistication and introspection. We are encouraged to truly digest our core curriculum and to apply it to our lives. But how is this possible if we are not given a breath to assess ourselves, to be introspective?

In the 21st century, college students are expected to achieve more than ever before. We are expected to mature in one summer, to excel in all our classes, and to be an active community member, all while surviving under the intense pressure of life itself. And BC, unfortunately, does little to assuage this stress.

This past weekend, my close friend lost her grandfather. She could barely focus in class for days after she heard the news. When she tried to get back on her feet and go about her regular day, she was faced with philosophy courses centered around contemplating death. She did not complain or take a break, but she would come back to me at the end of the day and tell me how difficult it was to discuss “philosophical” matters in the face of real loss.

Socrates, for example, claims that the good man cannot be harmed because harm does not correlate with physical pain or death. He essentially negates the impact death has on a person’s life. I know this random fact, because just about every BC student must spend at least one of their four years in a philosophy course.

Last week, while trying to complete the next day’s reading, I called my mother. I heard a fuzziness in the background of the call and suspected she was driving somewhere. It was around 9:30 at night, so I asked her where she was going. My dad was driving her to the airport—my grandfather passed away, and she had to fly to Korea for the funeral.

Grief and mourning are not, I believe, ideas that people contemplate daily, no matter what our philosophy classes teach us. Not even at a school like BC, where we learn that we should philosophically reflect on our lives, do we actually think about what others might be going through in this very moment. Though people suffer loss every day, such a topic doesn’t cross anyone’s mind until they undergo it themselves.

Before my mother ended that call, she told me not to let the news interfere with my studies. My sister lamented that I had to experience the loss during the second semester of my freshman year. While this is in part because of my family’s focus on academia, I have also seen how unforgiving colleges can be for student grief.

“No absences other than Dean’s or doctor’s notes will be accepted,” states just about every syllabus I have received. It’s not life, but rather college that ignores grief. College students are told to handle their shit and to move on. Adults are able to take leave from work and to attend their relatives’ funerals, but in college, somehow that basic right has become a privilege.

Federal law requires that all employees receive “up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave” for family and medical situations, and most U.S. employers allot at least three to five days of paid funeral leave (the US Office of Personal Management, for example, offers three paid days for bereavement). While this is certainly not a lengthy amount of time for the loss of a family member, the schedule of a college student is no more forgiving, as our breaks are determined by the school.

I am by no means suggesting that adults have it easier. The discrepancies in the two lifestyles, however, reveal the different values assigned to each group. Adults are supposed to focus on their work for almost the entire year, unless a family emergency occurs. Students are expected to dedicate certain periods of their year to academia, and if something comes up during those periods, that’s just too bad.

In practice, I have found that many of my professors are more forgiving than their syllabi might suggest. Yet the student must still take full responsibility for their individual grade. BC’s fast-paced curriculum enables students to learn so much material, but taking even a day to mourn yields hours of extra work, a lower participation grade, and additional stress that layers itself upon the grief. Even without the stress of a loss, students struggle to keep up with the sheer volume of work they are assigned week after week. Classes don’t stop to consider students’ mental health or their personal problems.

This lack of relief in both student and adult lives speaks to a greater problem nationwide about mounting stress. At BC of all places, the mental health of students should be approached differently. Sitting in class listening to how a philosopher viewed death or trying to focus on a Christian theology lecture has been difficult to reconcile with actual loss. While these core classes are certainly valuable, the message they send is different from what BC actually gives its students in terms of Jesuit compassion. The 21st century attitude toward college students is far too cutthroat—and Jesuit identity, is not immune to it.

February 3, 2019