Symbols and Grief

By Angela Batie

We lost a student this week. He fell from a balcony of a campus apartment building early on Wednesday. Although I didn’t know him, his friends said he was a bright guy, a dedicated student with a future as a doctor. Funny. Kind. Students, once invincible, awoke to the news and responded with shock, grief, and bewilderment. How could this happen? The grief left in its wake is almost unbearable.

As campus ministers, we have been working to try to respond to this tragedy by supporting the students as they grieve. We learned early on that this student was Jain, a non-violent religion with roots in India. The symbols in our toolbox – the cross, the Eucharist, comfort of heaven – lacked meaning to many of the grieving students. And, in the urgency of the need, we didn’t have time for a speed-course in Jainism.

So they took the lead. They gathered people together for an evening service outside. We brought the candles, they brought the meaning. They walked in packs, not letting each other more than inches away, as though in the sudden realization of how quickly those we love can be snatched from our grasp, they couldn’t bear to be out of arm’s reach. They stood tall behind a microphone, trying to let others understand how much their friend, cousin, boyfriend, roommate meant to them. They sang the prayers that felt familiar. They used the words that gave them comfort.

And we witnessed. We stood next to them in their crushing pain. We watched as they propped each other up when tears threatened to make them crumble. We cried as their sobs made it hard for them to breathe. And we looked at their symbols. We took cues from their meaning. I remembered the murder of a friend in college, eight years ago, and I cried fresh tears from a long-forgotten well inside me. While their friend was a stranger to me, their grief is an old companion of mine. While their prayers were unintelligible to me, the seeking for comfort in them was crystal clear. While the symbols that brought them comfort held little meaning to me, I knew the longing for some kind of explanation, something – anything – to hold onto as to how this could have possibly happened.

The time I finally broke down following my friend’s death was during the distribution of communion at the next mass I attended. I wasn’t mediating on Jesus’ sacrifice, or considering the Eucharistic mystery. In those moments, the symbol and ritual of the Eucharist spoke a language beyond words. It was the only thing powerful enough to chisel through the wall of shock that had wrapped around me, to finally reach my heart and create a safe space to release the tidal wave of grief that had been damned up inside me. The Church community and the heart of our worship was the only thing strong enough to allow me to finally be weak.

I saw the student’s friends seek meaning, and though the words and symbols were different, the meaning and seeking were the same. I took comfort knowing that their symbols, rituals, and prayers could support them just as mine have sustained me.

Angela Batie is a Campus Minister at Saint Louis University. She prays for those who grieve this tragic loss, and she remembers Kate.

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One Response

  1. I’m so sorry to hear this, Angela! I’ll be thinking of and praying for you and your community.

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