When Grief is A Bureaucratic Process: Strengthening Support Systems for Students During COVID-19

Petitions, Prayers, & Obituary Emails

Written & illustrated by Maira Asaad ‘21

With words from Amina Omar ‘22 & Mahrukh Murad ‘24

The pandemic has, in many ways, changed the way we’re able to mourn the loss of our loved ones, and what the grieving process looks like; the global community is still registering how the social fabric has been altered by a year saturated with losses. As we approach a hybrid Spring semester, it’s important to reflect on how our education system can continue to expand and strengthen its available support mechanisms for its community.

The changing faces of grief in 2020

In late November, I attended the funeral of an extended family member who had passed away. It wasn’t until I arrived at the funeral home did the full weight of the pandemic sink in: when I went inside to where the women would be gathered around the maiyyat, the sight that met me was jarring. Women were seated on chairs, lined up against all four walls of the room. Each of them had a mask on, and I couldn’t identify anyone–not my mother, or my khala, or my grandmother–until my mother waved me over. The daughters of the deceased were on the floor next to their mother’s body. But it wasn’t the body that stunned me–it was the perfect acceptability of the grief that had, before that moment, felt entirely missing that year. No one was touching hands, or embracing. And while it made the entire process of grieving cold and isolated, it was a necessity no one was shirking in that moment. 

I was watching the granddaughters’ of the woman who had passed away. What would the next few days look like for them as they returned to the daily passage of their own lives, without ever physically moving outside of the homespace at all? The same homespace that had been shared, at that point, with the woman they had now lost.

For the large part, the network of interactions that was available to us as we visited campus has evaporated. Virtual connections sustain us, but there’s a limit to how much they compensate for a loved one being physically present.

Amina Omar spoke about how, back in the peak months of the pandemic, when a relative of hers passed away (due to causes unrelated to COVID-19), a Zoom call had to be arranged for family members to be able to attend the prayer. “I think one of the striking experiences back then was the extent to which the lockdown was being enforced,” she says. “My sister and brother in law couldn’t visit because all the flights were closed.” 

Mahrukh Murad remembers being woken up in the middle of the night on 16th November 2020. She was told it was an emergency. A few moments later, she sat alone with the words: “Nani ka inteqāl ho gaya hai.” 

“I was painfully aware that those words and the meaning they carried, could not be taken back. In the chaos of the morning where my grandmother had passed away, I sent an email to my professors, all the while staring at the words I was typing in disbelief.” 

“Mourning alone was difficult, but despite being socially alienated, I felt a sense of being connected with friends who messaged to check up on me. I had a Professor who let me cry during her office hours.” 

For Professors this past year, confronting grief in the virtual classroom sphere has changed in ways that we’re not seeing. As a teaching assistant (TA) this semester, I’ve been privy to information I wouldn’t be as an enrolled student in the same course. In conversations with other friends who’ve also been teaching assistants, sometimes a TA has to be the middle ground between a student’s personal problems and how an instructor might be able to accommodate them. At least three students in my own course have had loved ones pass away in their family (related and unrelated to COVID-19)–and, as far as the other teaching assistants I know of are concerned as well, have had to type out more condolence messages this semester than on an average year. 

But students don’t always have these support systems readily available to them. Not all professors are equipped to respond to the emotions of grieving students, and that can come off as abrasive or lacking in empathy. How the university creates an ecosystem around improving emotional health can play a huge role in that. 

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How can we strengthen the support systems available at the University? 

Mahrukh suggests an intervention that the Office of Student Affairs (OSA) could readily make. “OSA sent me a nice condolence message, but they never connected me with someone from Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS). I don’t think I need therapy, but as a policy reform, it might be nice for the OSA to connect the person petitioning or informing about the death of an immediate family member to a LUMS mental health professional, and then it would be up to the person if they wish to follow through or not.” 

Additionally, I’d also like to turn attention to what, to my mind, has been the touchstone of grief support for the student community at LUMS: the obituary emails sent by the Student Council. The other, of course, is the private, student-run Facebook group Help @ LUMS, where students can anonymously post about personal difficulties that they are undergoing. 

As of November, this past year we’ve received over 160 emails from the LUMS Obituary. Compared to the obituary numbers from the past year (around 120), the distinct association, or anxiety, that has surrounded each of these emails has been with COVID-19 related deaths. Over a third of these emails were received during the peak months of the pandemic (June/July)–and these notices a) only consist of students (enrolled or alumni), and b) are only the ones that actually do make it to the Student Council’s inbox. Other times, news of the passing away of a loved one goes directly to the Office of Student Affairs to file for a petition, or is posted through the LUMS Discussion Forum, or on the students’ own social media pages.

Maida Tahir ’21, the member of the Student Council who is responsible for sending out the students’ obituary emails, says that at one point earlier this year, several students reached out to the Student Council and requested that the emails not be sent out at once.

She goes on to say, “A lot of people, you know where they’re coming from. People were sad. They might have had COVID-19 related deaths in their family. My own thought process [when I saw those requests] was: but I can’t stop sending out emails. Those people who’ve asked for an obituary email want those prayers they’re asking for. They don’t want to be kept waiting. It was taking a toll on me to be seeing those emails, and messages on WhatsApp, but I couldn’t pick and choose which ones to send out.”

It’s important to note that this mechanism is independent of the petition system for the OSA. The obituary emails are also only emailed to students. For faculty members, this might be a way for them to find out whether a student in their class has undergone a loss, because chances may be that a student never tells their professor unless it’s an immediate family at all. 

As of the latest edition of the Undergraduate Student Handbook 20-21, students are not allowed to withdraw from a course after the withdrawal period is over, and the provision for special or extenuating circumstances is, if existent, vague and ambiguous and refers to taking a semester off instead of a withdrawal. 

Here’s what the Handbook has to say about that: 

“19.5.2. Involuntary Withdrawal from the Semester 

In cases where it is judged that the student is able to recover/cope, the student is allowed to take the semester off, on the condition that s/he will provide certain documentation to the OSA before being considered for re-joining. This includes, but may not be limited to, a petition for resumption of studies, medical documentation and an academic plan approved by the student’s school advisement unit. This documentation will be verified by the OSA and the student will be required to have clearance interviews with the Head of OSA and the student counsellor…” 

I’ve had to go back and forth between the Handbook a few times to make sure I’m not missing out on a provision, but the fact is: the fine print is unclear. A student (and most often a distressed one) has to make several queries before being routed to the proper channel. So how can OSA, CAPS, and the Student Council improve on the current provisions available for grieving students? 

  • Include Faculty on the list of recipients for the Obituary emails sent out by the Student Council
  • For OSA & the Student Council to work together to create a more transparent process for petitions
    “The thing is, OSA can email professors with a petition, but it’s up to the instructors on whether or not they want to accept it,” Tahir explains.
  •  As vital as the implementation of sexual harassment information sessions and training was for faculty earlier this year, perhaps the University is ready to look into grief counselling (this is not a substitute for therapy or counseling) 

This editorial is meant to be a starting point to discuss ways forward–but the . This past month, the LUMS Discussion Forum has slowly been filling with screenshots of instructors’ messages, where students who have been panicking over being unable to meet deadlines are consoled for not having to worry–and more often than not, while the outpour of likes and heartwarming comments is an expression of gratitude, it also seems symptomatic of something else: these consolations, moments of understanding, and recognition that the community is sticking it out in a global pandemic are an exception, not the norm–in a time when they least should be. 

 I wonder whether we’ve allowed ourselves the spaces to grieve this year as we adjust to an entirely virtual learning experience. And, more importantly, whether we’ve created those support systems for ourselves.

 
 

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