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Bereaved students search for meaning after classmates' deaths

Just over two weeks ago, two young alums were struck by a car while walking in Brooklyn — a hit-and-run that joined two recent fatalities that crystallized the fragility of human life for the Brown community.

"Suddenly everything is explicit," said Rabbi Mordechai Rackover, associate University chaplain for the Jewish community. "We suddenly have to name the gifts of a person."

In the wake of tragedies as distant as Beijing and as close to home as the intersection of Thayer and Hope streets, students are trying to cope with losing someone their own age — for many, for the first time.

"What do you do with it?" said Indy Shome '11, a childhood friend of Arun Stewart '11, who died last semester while studying abroad in Beijing. "How much are you supposed to grieve? How much are you supposed to go on with your life?"

A rude awakening

On Feb. 12, a knock on his door woke Jack deTar '13 in the middle of the night.

When he answered, the friend standing there told him the news — that Avi Schaefer '13 was dead.

"He said Avi had been hit by a car and he was dead," said deTar, one of Schaefer's closest friends. "It just seemed impossible."

The next few hours were a whirlwind for deTar.

"I was having strange thoughts," deTar said. He recalled thinking that it was "crowded" in the car's backseat on his second trip to the hospital.

"Perhaps I was just defending myself by not letting myself focus on what was happening," he speculated.

Walking into the emergency room of Rhode Island Hospital, where Schaefer was taken after the accident, "solidified" the reality of the situation for him, deTar said. "I just started calling people," he said.

The news of Schaefer's death spread quickly among students. Danya Chudacoff '11.5 received the news around 7 a.m. through a phone call from Sarah Levy '12, who at first hesitated to explain why she wanted to come over to Chudacoff's house.

Chudacoff recalled asking Levy repeatedly what was wrong.

" ‘Where is he?' " Chudacoff remembered asking.

" ‘He's in the hospital,' " she said Levy told her.

" ‘Is he alive?' " she asked.

" ‘No.' "

"That was the last lucid memory that I had for, like, the next three days," she said.

"We went to Hillel," she said. "We went straight to Hillel."

A community grieves

After returning to campus, deTar stayed awake despite his attempts to sleep, he said. Like Chudacoff, he gravitated toward Brown/RISD Hillel.

Hillel opened at 8:30 a.m. to offer coffee and breakfast, according to Rabbi Rackover. "There were tons and tons of students," some of whom were crying loudly, Chudacoff said. The mourners coming in and out also included professors, deans and President Ruth Simmons, she said.

"There was such pain in the air," deTar said. "But there was so much love, too."

"I couldn't cry," Chudacoff said. "I broke down when I was alone," she said.

In the afternoon, Schaefer's body was transferred from the hospital to Sugarman Sinai Memorial Chapel on Hope Street, according to Rackover. Chudacoff, other students and even a faculty member took turns sitting by Schaefer's body.

"You have to take care of a body as if it were a baby," Rackover said.

"The person that sits with the deceased is called a ‘shomer' " — literally translated as "watcher," said Ira Fleisher, the funeral home's managing director.

In Orthodox Judaism, that person "is with you from the time you die until the time of the funeral," Fleisher said. "Someone accompanies you and stays with you so that you're not alone."

The body was kept in a freezer in the funeral home's garage. There are couches in the garage, Chudacoff said, "arranged for mourners to sit and grieve."

Chudacoff and her companions sat for hours, talking about Schaefer and crying.

"We sat, we talked, we sang zemirot," Chudacoff said, referring to a type of Jewish religious song. Chudacoff and the others guarding his body sang Schaefer's favorite zemirot, she said.

For the first few days, Chudacoff said, people flocked to Hillel "when they didn't know what to do."

"Hillel is a center for Jewish life," she said, "and so many of us were Jewish."

Over the weekend, Chudacoff and her friends questioned repeatedly what it meant for Hillel to be a focal point for so many. "How does the way that we're focusing on Hillel reflect on Avi?" she recalled wondering.

Without Hillel, "this would have been, if possible, 10 times harder," she said.

"You really need to be able to set up a physical space for people to get together," she said. "It's absolutely necessary."

‘Unfinished conversations'

At first, Chudacoff was unable to believe that her friend was dead. Later, she felt "unquantifiable amounts of sadness and pain," she remembered.

"You're so angry," she said. "You just feel angry at the unpredictability and the uncertainty of it. What's the reason? What's the bigger picture here?"

"What was the fatal cosmic equation that made this person be at this place at this time?" she said. Chudacoff dreams about "what if" situations, alternate realities in which Schaefer goes to the bathroom before leaving the bar he was at the night he died, or runs into a friend and stops to talk.

As a consequence, "everything seems so banal," Chudacoff said.

"At first, you just, you feel guilty," she said, a "combination of guilt and resistance" in reaction to thinking about something else.

"What I feel changes daily, hourly," said deTar, who also said he was still "trying to metabolize" the experience.

He has difficulty focusing and channels his thoughts and emotions into his writing — especially fiction that blurs "the line between prose and poetry," he said.

"It's how I feel in my life right now," in between the "everyday" and the "metaphysical," he said.

Grieving is "not just the process of dealing with the loss," said Sherri Nelson, associate director of Psychological Services. "It's multidimensional, and it takes place over time."

Grief and mourning include experiencing "sadness, guilt, loneliness," Nelson said, but also force people to cope with "a sense of a loss of meaning in life."

"There isn't a lesson to be learned," Chudacoff said. "For me it's just sort of a reminder of how to value the quotidian."

Schaefer's death and the hit-and-run that injured Erinn Phelan '09 and Alma Guerrero '09 MD'13 underline the "extraordinary risk" that exists in everyday activities, said University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson.

Cooper Nelson said she finds herself keeping the people next to her from crossing the street and thinking, while driving, that every pedestrian she sees could be Schaefer.

"The sheer abruptness and uncertainty of life," Chudacoff said, "slap you in the face."

"Avi I had seen the day before. Avi was here," she said. "We had unfinished conversations."

Death from a distance

While Schaefer's death unsettled the Brown community because of its proximity, it is much more common for students to pass away while they are away from campus, Cooper Nelson said.

One such student was Arun Stewart '11, who died while abroad in Beijing last semester. Stewart, who was studying at Tsinghua University, lost his footing while at a rooftop gathering, according to a campus-wide e-mail from President Simmons sent on Oct. 31.

Emily Tursack '11, who lived near Stewart in Keeney Quadrangle their freshman year, said it feels like he is still away.

"It doesn't really seem real," she said. "He was so alive that it's hard to picture him otherwise."

The distance has made the experience "even more surreal and confusing," said Shome, Stewart's childhood friend.

Still, Shome said, the initial waves of grief have subsided. He thinks about Stewart and his
death when he wants to tell him something, such as a joke he would have wanted to share.

While December's memorial service on campus marked the end of "one pocket of stress" for Shome — who said he spent the rest of the fall semester after Stewart's death struggling to focus on his schoolwork — winter break was an important turning point for him.

"I spent time alone, and just let myself feel," he said. "That feeling of grief is an important feeling in life."

DeTar said he began to find solace at Schaefer's burial. On his flight to San Diego — deTar went home before Schaefer's funeral in Los Angeles on Feb. 15 — he tried to write the eulogy he would deliver for his friend.

"The only thing I could write was, ‘My best friend died yesterday,' " he said.

After the funeral, those in attendance helped bury him — deTar said he used his hands to cover his friend's coffin.

"It seemed more natural for him to be in the ground than above the ground in a coffin," he said, calling the funeral "the period at the end of the sentence."

New conversations begin

As "perennial" and "prevalent" as grief is, it is hardly discussed, said Cooper Nelson, who runs a weekly bereavement group that offers a space for conversation to any grieving student who wants to attend.

"At first, we don't even know how to bring it up," Cooper Nelson said, pointing to a "need to develop some better, more routinized ways" of talking about loss.

While Rackover encourages students to express themselves in any way, including writing for themselves, he emphasized the importance of talking to others.

"You need to be able to bounce yourself off of others," he said.

DeTar said he has relied mostly on his friends since Schaefer's death, and not on Psychological Services or other University resources, such as Cooper Nelson's bereavement group.

"I've found a lot of love from people that I wouldn't expect," he said. "If anything, this has shown me that people are people," he said, "how human everyone is."


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