A Time to Reflect and Reach Out

This has been a week for reflection, at the tail end of a long and hard winter (by Kingston standards) and a rather difficult year for Queen’s.

This past week we lost another student, another member of our community, announced to the university in what these past several months has become an unfortunately  familiar message.

Once again, our Emergency Response Team immediately assembled to begin handling the many issues flowing out of a student death—notification of next of kin, support for fellow students, organization of memorials, interaction with the police.  It’s a longer list than that, and I wish I could say that our team had to work through a dusty and unfamiliar protocol. Regrettably, after a year that began last March 27, 2010 with the death of Jack Windeler, the team knows the routine by (heavy) heart. Yet familiarity hasn’t dampened their compassion or their attention to detail, so I would like to record here my profound appreciation of Dean John Pierce’s leadership and the work of his colleagues, in particular Chaplain Brian Yealland and Dr. Mike Condra, throughout the Student Affairs portfolio. I should also note the heroic efforts of Eric Windeler, father of Jack, who in the year since his son’s death has become an impassioned activist on behalf of mental health issues (a subject I will return to below) at Canada’s school and universities through The Jack Project.

On Tuesday night, we will gather to grieve for Andrew Lloyd, just as we have mourned Robert Nason and Jack Windeler, as well as Habib Khan and Cameron Bruce, the latter two who died as the result of falls last term.  (In the past, we have sustained other losses of students, out of town, too, which are not forgotten.) In early May, we will open a fifth consecutive Board of Trustees meeting with a moment of silence and a report on this latest tragic event.

It isn’t death in itself, however, that is tragic, even if it is always sad. We are accustomed to announcing deaths on campus, as we say goodbye to long-serving faculty or staff members, mostly after full lives, and typically marked by as much joyous remembrance of their achievements and contributions to the world and their families as about regret at their passing. The Queen’s Alumni Review similarly records the ending of lives, shorter or longer, among our graduates, along with happier events like births and marriages.

But it is a different and much sharper sadness when it is our young who are being mourned. While we can and should focus on the positive aspects of our brief interactions with a young soul now prematurely departed from this world, we are also deeply aware of the promise unfulfilled, of all the good that they might have done in the world. My wife Julie and I have occasion to talk about this sense of loss personally, as she lost her older sister Lisa (who was only 19) many years ago in a way that was preventable (in Lisa’s case, a misdiagnosed illness that could have been cured easily if properly identified. She wanted to be a vet.) There is no getting around it: there is little more melancholic at a university, a place that normally glows with the incandescent energy of youth, than the early extinguishing of one of its thousands of candles.

And yet, it is at these moments that we come together as a community, and show ourselves at our best. If it has been a tough year in this and other respects, it has also been one for celebrating achievement, which we will do in a few weeks at spring Convocation. But this blog isn’t the place to highlight our many successes in research, teaching and learning, nor our superb varsity athletics performances, nor  all the good news that comes out of the dozens of socially responsible actions that our students, staff and faculty take every day, at their own initiative and with no thought of reward apart from the satisfaction of having done good.

Rather, I want to close with a pair of inspirational initiatives taken by our students in response to the most recent tragedy (Doubtless there are others, but these are the two that have come to my attention in recent days). Third year arts and science student Kevin Imrie has initiated “Queen’s Loves U” for Thursday, April 7, the end of classes. We are all encouraged to speak with our peers, friends and colleagues and wear the external symbols of our little commonwealth of learning, whether it be tricolour clothing, a Queen’s pin, a tam etc.  Various events have been suggested to go along with this. If you have ideas, you can email queenslovesu@gmail.com or post to the Queen’s loves U Facebook page. The day should be an occasion, as Kevin suggests, not only for providing mutual solace, but for reminding ourselves of all the good things that we have collectively and individually done. Above all, it’s a day for reaching out. To quote the novelist E.M. Forster’s words, ending his A Passage to India: ‘Only connect’.

The second inspirational act comes from a moving Facebook entry by incoming AMS Academic Affairs commissioner Mira Dineen, drawing attention to the issue of mental health which has been made topical this year by some of our unhappy episodes, and which is rapidly emerging across all campuses in Canada as a major challenge. Mira’s remarks note the necessity for openness on the many issues pertaining to mental health and well-being, too long hidden in the shadows. I will write a bit more about that subject in a later blog, as it deserves attention in its own right, but Mira, like Kevin, encourages us to support one another.

Let me close by wishing all our students success in their exams—a time of anxiety as noted in last week’s Journal. But I also want to encourage you to do as Kevin and Mira have suggested: watch out for each other, and if you yourself are having difficulties, don’t hesitate to talk to someone. Queen’s does love you; our faculty and staff, as well as your friends, are here to listen and help.

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