March 20, 2022

ONONYE | Mourning on Campus: The Friends You Never Met

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This week, Cornell experienced another campus death — for the sake of the student’s family and friends, I won’t speak directly about them and their loss in this piece. Rather, this column is about campus mourning and the general grief that Cornellians feel when one of their own is taken too soon and too young. This piece has been a long time coming, a culmination of the anger that I experience each time someone dies on our campus — and the guilt and helplessness that I, and so many other students, feel when one of our peers passes. 

I’ve talked a lot about student guilt with friends, faculty, mentees and family this week and about how that impacts the ways students approach the loss of a life at Cornell. 

The strongest guilt is when we don’t know the student who has passed away. There’s something about knowing that someone went to the same coffee shops as you, enrolled in courses on Student Center at the same time as you and went to the same parties as you yet you never crossed paths with them. In so many scenarios you were just a step away from being friends. The other side of the coin is that their lives were completely different from yours — they had different friends, were in a different college than you and were involved in activities that you never thought to join. Either way, you didn’t know them. And yet, for many (and most!) of us, their death still hits home. It’s understandable that even if you didn’t know who passed, you know that they had dreams similar to yours — to make friends, receive a great education and experience life independently away from their families.  

You also feel guilty when you knew the student, but didn’t know them well enough. Maybe that student sat in one of your classes, lived in your residence hall or served on an e-board of a club that you infrequently attend. That hits home even more. We feel guilty that we didn’t reach out to get coffee, missed that birthday party and didn’t say “hi” in class. Your connection to the lost isn’t strong enough for friendship, but when you read that email, your first thought is that you knew them. 

In these moments Cornellians are quick to action — in a way that I feel is intended to rid them of their pain from the loss of their own. Student leaders are organizers, assisting friends with academic extensions and planning celebrations and memorials in recognition of the lost. Campus events are canceled and counselors are readily available to support students, but these actions never feel like solutions. 

I don’t do well with death. I realize how privileged I am to say that at twenty-two years old, I haven’t lost anyone close to me. I say that with a caveat, because my grandfather died when I was six years old — but, he was sick for most of my childhood and at the time I wasn’t really old enough to process the death. So, I never know the “right” way to mourn someone who I don’t know well and never know the best way to support my friends when they have experienced major losses close to them. 

When a student died last year, I felt uncomfortable attending a virtual memorial for them. I had never met the student and felt conflicted, both feeling like I needed to be there and feeling guilty for encroaching on a space that I felt was reserved for their family and loved ones. When I spoke to my mom about the conflict, she responded with probably the best death/mourning advice that I had ever heard: “You always go to the funeral.” She then explained how she attends every funeral — for the people she knows and the loved ones of people she knows. Not to take up space, but to 1) honor and celebrate their lives, even if she didn’t know them, and 2) let their loved ones know that they were loved and cherished. 

So with that, I implore you to honor the lives that we lose on our campus. It’s okay to cry about the loss of someone you haven’t met — their lives were valuable and no matter how different you might be from them, you’re both Cornellians. It’s okay to feel hurt and unmotivated, especially when mourning the death of a close friend. Take advantage of the mental health services and resources that Cornell provides, and give yourself grace. Mourning is not a flat road, and doesn’t just end. Cornell doesn’t stop moving when a student dies, despite how so many of us wish it did. Even if the campus doesn’t stop, it’s okay for you to take a pause. 

Anuli Ononye (she/her) is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Womansplaining runs every other Monday this semester.