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A Death in the College

— A college should live forever, but its long life will always stand in contrast to the lives of its mortal members.

Earlier this month a second-year student at Princeton University’s Wilson College was found dead in her room, just as the term was getting under way. No cause of death was apparent, and medical tests have not yet been completed.

There is no formula for responding to a death in a college community, nor should there be. Every such loss is individual and particular. A suicide or an unexpected death of any kind within a college can devastate the membership on many levels.

Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who specializes in the prevention of psychological trauma, emphasizes the importance of “griefwork” within stable, cohesive communities for those who have suffered traumatic losses. In his important book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Shay writes, “What a returning soldier needs most when leaving war is not a mental health professional but a living community to whom his experience matters.” This is true for all of us.

In the face of a tragic death within a college, students should not be left alone, and as much as possible the grief of the college should be made communal. The exams and the chemistry assignments and the book reviews to be written will all be there a day or a week later, as need be, and that is an important lesson in itself. Stay up all night in the college so students can tell recollections of their departed friend. Have a memorial dinner in the person’s honor, and plant a new tree on the college grounds, placing memories among its roots as it is set in the ground. Don’t try to paper over the impact of the death or make people try to forget it—that is disrespectful both to the person lost and to the friends who remain.

As academic societies, residential colleges should be able to draw powerfully on the written record of human experience in times of tragedy, and should live out the truth of the saying, “We read to know we are not alone.” A tragic loss within a college should call forth—not as a callous expression of pedantry but rather out of a deep communion with human experience—everything from Ben Jonson’s epitaph on his seven-year-old son (“Here lies Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry”), to the lament of Gilgamesh for Enkidu (“for my friend, I weep … he was the axe at my side, the bow at my arm, the dagger in my belt, the shield in front of me, my festive garment, my splendid attire”), to Emily Dickinson’s consolation of her grieving cousins on the death of Frazar Stearns, the son of the president of Amherst College and a member of the Amherst class of 1863, killed in the American Civil War a year before he would have graduated: “Let us love better, children. It’s most that’s left to do.”

The ancient Greeks had a funeral custom that Sappho relates to us, and which we can offer here in memory of Wilson College’s departed student:

We put the urn aboard ship
With this inscription:

This is the dust of little
Timas who unmarried was led
into Persephone’s dark bedroom

And she being far from home, girls
her age took new-edged blades
to cut, in mourning for her,
these curls of their soft hair

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021