It was a rainy October Wednesday and I was moving slowly. I had an appointment that morning at a local agency to plan a research
project. Over a cup of hot chocolate, I checked my e-mail from home, something I rarely do. I started at my computer screen
as I noted the time the last e-mail message was sent: 3:30 a.m. The sender, a social work major, had obviously been up late.
I opened the message, wondering what was so important at that hour. The short message read that a senior social work major
had died earlier.
She had been sick, yes, but with diabetes. Twenty-one year old students do not die of diabetic complications, not in
my experience. She had struggled from taking school not-very-seriously as an underclassman. This semester she had shown
signs of the emerging social work professional she would be. She sat in my individual practice class, front and center.
Set to complete required courses next semester, she was beginning plans for her field internship next summer. She had been
in class on Monday, participating, interacting. It was not Wednesday and she was gone.
I debated canceling my agency meeting. I needed to be at work, to be there for students and faculty as they learned the
news. I needed to be there for myself. I needed more information about what happened, so I could begin to process it. I
phoned a colleague, and could tell from his voice that he had heard. In fact, two students were with him, trying to understand
what had happened, what he couldn't begin to explain. My colleague encouraged me to attend my agency meeting but to "hurry."
When I finally arrived at the office, my secretary stopped me. My colleague was behind closed doors talking with the same
two students as earlier, but needed to leave for class. I knocked, and saw pure grief on the faces of the deceased student's
best friends. I took my colleague's seat as he left for class, and continued listening and reframing. We were social workers
Our traditional students' experience with death was limited to grandparents and pets, not to peers. Each faculty member
teaching in the program struggled as well: facing her empty chair in class and feeling regret for the life not lived. One
faculty member had the difficult task of informing most majors of the loss during his two research class sections that morning.
My Thursday class was previously canceled because I was attending an out-of-state meeting. Funeral services were set
for Saturday and I canceled my trip. I e-mailed students, explaining that I was willing to meet at the regular class time
with anyone wishing to talk. I wasn't really expecting anyone - several majors had stopped by on Wednesday and indicated
they were starting their fall break early. I was surprised when I saw fully half my class in attendance Thursday morning.
For the entire class period, we sat and talked and were silent and cried and laughed together. The topic turned to "doing
something" for the family. I mentioned that the family was going to be struggling financially with expenses and students
seized the idea. Ten days later, a benefit dance was held. Students solicited area businesses to donate door prizes, procured
a d.j. at no cost, and talked Student Activities into paying for pizza and soda.
The benefit dance proved to be a positive coping mechanism. The student's family, in attendance, saw first-hand the crowd
that attended to honor their daughter. Faculty expressed pride in the majors' accomplishment in pulling off such a success.
Students noted satisfaction with having accomplished something important for the family. A notebook was available there
for anyone to write a condolence note. My practice class wrote briefly to the family, pointing out the student's strengths
and capabilities. Our healing process had started.
The staff at the university counseling center made themselves available to majors, but few accessed their services. Instead,
students found support among themselves and us. We may have blurred the lines between teacher/student and social worker/client,
but we got through the remainder of the semester - together. And we hope never to deal with another situation like this.