COVID-19, Loss, and Reflections

Matthew R. Shupp
Shippensburg University

Casey Norton
Shippensburg University

Robyn Swayne
Shippensburg University

Gabrielle A. Reed
Shippensburg University

Taylor Donahue
Shippensburg University

Karla Moses
Shippensburg University

 

Matthew R. Shupp

I am a faculty member and coordinator of a student affairs preparation program. Prior to this role, I was a student affairs professional for over a decade in a variety of educational settings. Although I acknowledge I gained tremendous experience over my almost two decades in higher education, COVID-19 is unprecedented, and I might speculate a new – and certainly unforeseen – obstacle many of us never anticipated. How does one pivot so abruptly to ensure a smooth closure to the spring semester? Is it even possible? I teach an internship class for a dedicated group of emerging student affairs professionals. When we reconvened – meeting online for the remainder of the semester – for our weekly scheduled class time, although we had used technology in the past to aid our academic experience, the finality that this would be our “new normal” for the foreseeable future became apparent. For someone who enjoys structure and schedules, I made the conscious decision to provide grace, to both myself and to my students. I acknowledged the curricular path I had originally intended to pursue was no longer feasible. What to do? The best course of action, as I listened to the range of emotions my students brought with them to our protected space, was that I needed to find creative ways to ensure a smooth closure to their academic experience without adding additional burdens to this already burdensome situation. As I listened, I learned. Below are some of their stories.

Casey Norton: Your Mountain is Waiting

I work in Athletics at Shippensburg University. As a former student-athlete, it is a passion I have been working to make into a career. My heart sunk as the first signs of COVID snuck into our small world. I cried; I cried a lot. All those student-athletes who had put months, years, hours and hours of time into their craft, to see it all just go. I felt so deeply for each of them because I knew; I knew how much they had lost. There is an inherent need to be a protector to students when you work in an educational role. You feel when they are with you, you can be the tool belt for them, the resource, but when they go, distance creates strain, a feeling of disconnect. Quick, yet painfully slow, I watched as students trickled out of residence halls.  A cheery hello to help the mood, but a somber, “Stay healthy” as they walked out the door. Health is more than just a sickness you may contract. It is a mind, body, and soul thing. “Your Mountain Is Waiting” is a quote from Dr. Seuss’s ’‘Oh the Places You’ll Go’. It is a quote I had permanently engraved in my skin several years ago, a constant reminder that life will always present challenges to overcome. The important lesson in all of this is that we all gain a lot from these “mountains”. They teach us things; make us stronger people. Resilient. These times have presented as one of life’s many mountains and as a budding Student Affairs professional, graduation looming, I feel like this particular hike will no doubt be one of our hardest. Together, we conquer.

Robyn Swayne: Not Derailed, Just a Different Track

Prior to leaving my graduate assistantship for spring break, a colleague of mine gifted me with a unique mix of herbal tea cased in a superhero tin.  I decided to leave it behind as a special treat to return to in a week.  Now over a month later, I am still anticipating the day when I can come to campus and try this herbal superhero tea.

As a student in the final stretch of their graduate coursework, COVID-19’s introduction to the educational sphere has obviously been an unanticipated one.  Events that had taken the entire year to plan were cancelled. Classes were moved to a virtual format. Meetings with students and group sessions I was eagerly anticipating to lead just disappeared. My first phone interview for a position in higher education was postponed. Everything just seemed to fade away.  You could say the scheduled train that I was on felt like it completely derailed, and instead I was thrown on board an emotional rollercoaster, and not a fun one at that. The amount of grieving that took place during these first couple weeks was extraordinary, and then I had my first class on Zoom and broke down. The online class format became a visual reminder that I may not see many of my classmates and professors in person again.

But as time has pressed on, I have realized that the train has not completely derailed. It has just switched tracks and is on a different course. Many students have lost the experiences that we originally planned for, but instead are gaining unique, invaluable experiences that never would have happened otherwise. Personally, I have had the opportunity to now host my own online meditation groups; a dream I have actually had for years and never had the perceived time to pursue. I have also been creating videos for undergraduates about coping skills to thrive through this pandemic. These new ways in which I get to reach out to students are now resources that can be shared to a wider scope of people where my reach is not confined to just an office space at restricted times.

I still do not know what graduation nor job searching will look like, but right now that is okay with me, because I am enjoying getting to be creative in how I approach this current moment in time.  It has gotten me to reevaluate how I can best use my skills to reach out to others.  I do miss the energies of being around my fellow classmates, students, professors, family, and friends, but when the time is right that will come back. This era is a practice of patience. It challenges me to be gentler and kinder in my interactions with others and myself, because many of us are still grieving and still trying to figure out what this epic time of change means for our reality. 

We have lost a lot this semester, but there is a lot to be gained if we are open to a novel perspective shift. The future is always unknown, and this path we are on was the one we were always going to take. That being said, I truly do look forward to the day where I get to return to campus and finally try that herbal superhero tea. Until then, I am virtually surrounded by a graduate cohort who, to me, are superheroes during this time; and I am doing what I can to hone in on that supportive, helping power and maybe be that for someone else.

Gabrielle A. Reed: COVID-19 as a Reminder of Resilience

Graduate school has pushed and pulled me in many different ways giving me the uncomfortable but necessary challenge to grow. Before COVID-19 I felt as though I was performing a juggling act between my 4 classes, an internship, graduate assistantship, and a job search – and gravity was winning. I was constantly worrying about dropping the ball. Now with the pandemic hitting, I do still feel like juggling, but it is at a much slower pace and easier to manage items. Although I have been grieving the many losses as a result of the pandemic, I do not regret regaining the ability to feel like I can breathe again. For the first time in months I feel like I can think clearly, reflect and get in touch with myself.  I know that I would feel differently if I was not in the stable environment I am in today. Coming from a tumultuous upbringing, abrupt changes, sudden losses, and lack of closure is all too familiar. In a world where it feels like many things are out of our control, I would like to give a gentle reminder to come back to our breathing. Stop. Breathe. We will get through- together.

Taylor Donahue: There Will Come a Day When They Do Come Back

When the doors locked for the last time before quarantine, the HVAC system in my residence hall powered down from lack of occupancy. This quiet is beyond what I am used to in Residence Life. I was only half-kidding in a one-on-one when I told my supervisor I wished I had a recording of hall noise; it might make it easier to sleep. I didn’t know how to answer when people asked me how I was other than to say: it’s quiet in my building, and it’s not supposed to be. But, I am still here.

My professor, and then my internship supervisor, compared it to a death. That feels right. I am not new to grief, but this hurts my heart differently. There was so much to do in the beginning—unlocking doors, highlighting rosters—but now, there’s just the loss. There are no more students needing to borrow reassurance as they pack moving carts. There is only silence in places that used to feel alive.

I miss my students. I even miss them running up and down the hallways, and the pulse of music through the walls of my apartment. I’d even find joy hearing the fire alarm. When this grief cuts the deepest, I feel guilt for the moments when I couldn’t find excitement for meetings, had to search for patience on duty, and for the chats with students that I let end too soon.

I am not good at goodbyes. I kick them down the road; I tell folks when I’ll see them next, instead, and promise I’ll visit. I do not know how to say the right goodbye to my students. As they dropped keys into checkout bins, I’d find myself saying: I’m going to email you. Reach out if you need anything. I am still here. I know that I will not see many of them again. While most of them will return to campus in the fall, I am graduating. The lack of closure with them is the hardest part.

When our class moved onto Zoom, I found solace in the conversations, connectedness, and support. Though we are farther apart than ever, I feel closer to my classmates. Weekly, I meet with my resident assistants. Though they are scattered to the wind like dandelion seeds, they log into Zoom from hundreds of miles apart. We laugh a lot; they tell me our time together makes them feel less alone. I do not tell them this directly, but they bring light to days when I cannot find it myself.

The writer in me wants to end with some meaningful image—like how the maple tree outside our building is budding, and that after winter comes spring—but I am still struck with sadness that the students are not here to see it. I find peace in knowing that while they cannot be here now, there will come a day when they do come back—and this place will still be here when they do. 

Karla Moses: Grief is Hard, But Not Insurmountable

March 9, 2020 I remember sitting in the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, and uttering the words, “I would not be upset if our spring break was extended.” I remember hearing about the school closures and how West Chester University decided to move to remote learning for the remainder of their semester. As I write this reflection weeks later, I now recognize how selfish that statement was. I would give anything for things to go back to the way that they were. I miss my students with every fiber of my being, and it hurts because I can’t do anything to change our current circumstances. I must have looked at the Developments article prompts several times because I did not think I had a right to write about grief and loss in regards to things we have lost or events that did not happen. I have students who will never feel the warm sun radiate their skin as they walk from the Shippensburg University Recreation Center onto the Seth Grove Stadium Field. They will not hear their name called, or have their loved ones scream their name as they go to receive the case that their degree will occupy in six to eight weeks post- graduation. I think about the graduating seniors and graduate students who will never be able to live out their last few weeks in a place they have come to know and love. When I think about all of those things, I ask myself, can I feel grief? Am I allowed to truly be sad? I still have another year left of graduate school. I do not have to worry about my graduation right now. I believe I will see my students again. I have been blessed.

However, I still feel sad. I can’t shake the feeling. I still feel lost. My heart aches for the students who live in environments that are not comfortable or conducive to their learning. It hurts to know that they may be somewhere suffering, and not have the tools needed to be successful. Now, I recognize that I do have a right to be frustrated. I will not be able to sit in the bleachers and scream for my graduating students, and cheer on my graduate school friends. I will not be able to celebrate those I love the way I wanted too in the last few weeks of school. I will not be able to continue with my field in-person, knowing that we had so many things planned for the spring semester. Grief is hard and most times it happens unexpectedly. The first thing I always feel when something is taken away suddenly is shock. I was in a state of shock for the first couple of weeks, and I was just going through the motions.

I was asked to stay home for two weeks because I live in a restricted county in Pennsylvania. I had only prepared to be home for a few days during spring break, and I found myself washing clothes every three days. I got word that I could return to campus, and I was overjoyed. A few hours later I received a message stating that I could not leave my apartment for two weeks. I could not go to my office. I could not go to the grocery store. I could not interact with other individuals. I was devastated. Here I was again experiencing some sense of loss. I had lost my freedom. My ability to interact with people. The first week was not terrible, but the second week I was going stir crazy. I did not feel like myself. I was sad and I even cried due to stress and feeling overwhelmed.

This pandemic has definitely affected my beautiful peers that I get to call friends in more ways than I can name, but it has also affected me. I still feel sad, lost, and frustrated. If it were not for God, my family, my students, the individuals in my internship class, and my mentors, I would not be able to see the bright side. I recognize that as I write this essay I have the privilege of being a healthy person. I am alive. Although, I have family members who have contracted the virus, they are recovering. I am grateful because I know that one day I will be able see those who bring me joy that cannot be explained. Students who make me want to be a better supervisor, a better leader, a better scholar, and a better mentor. My students keep me going and in this sea of darkness, they have been my lighthouse. So the next time I feel guilty for being sad or hurt, I will remember that we are all suffering. We may not be experiencing things the same way, but we are scared. There are so many unknown factors and all we truly want is to be together again.

Matthew R. Shupp

I concluded the opening paragraph stating that as I listened to my students, I learned. What did I learn? I learned that, for as much as I teach and espouse holistic student development, I often forget that my graduate students, too, have multiple competing priorities outside of graduate school. I learned that graduate school is often the only stable experience in their lives and, when that is taken away, panic sets in. I was reminded that, above most anything else, we are relational beings that require human connectedness. I was reminded that, in all of my privileged identities, in these inconvenient moments, I was powerless to stave off my students’ fear, anxiety, worry, and pain. However, I also learned that my students are amazingly resilient beings, perhaps even more resilient than I had previously given them credit for. I learned that they are extremely altruistic, living the definition of noble practitioners as they, too, grieved the loss of the semester with the students they serve. Finally, if COVID-19 has taught me anything, it was a beautiful reminder, through all the loss, our professions’ future is in competent hands. Never before am I able to recall a time when I have been prouder to teach our emerging student affairs professionals.

Author Bio

Matthew R. Shupp is an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and College Student Personnel at Shippensburg University of PA. He can be reached at [email protected]p.edu

The five additional authors are graduate students in the Department of Counseling and College Student Personnel at Shippensburg University of PA.

Additional articles in this Issue