T.J. Sullivan

Recovering from loss doesn’t happen quickly

CHS-memorialBack in 1999, when the massacre at Columbine High School claimed the lives of 12 students and one teacher, I struggled mightily.  The tragedy happened a few short miles from my home, and it brought up a significant amount of pent up grief that I had suppressed for decades – the deaths of my father and grandmother, unexplained loss of pets, my parents’ divorce.  I found myself in a very dysfunctional place, consumed with years of accumulated grief.

I felt it again two years ago when the massacre happened at the Century 16 movie theatre, down the street.

I had an opportunity to become certified by the Grief Recovery Institute – a project by the authors of The Grief Recovery Handbook, John W. James and Russell Friedman.  Fifteen years later, it’s still the book I give to people most often.  I always keep five to 10 copies on my bookcase, waiting for the moment they are needed.  I think it’s the most useful, brilliant book I’ve ever used, and it’s something Student Affairs professional should read and keep on hand.

The premise of the Grief Recovery Handbook is that grief is a normal human response to loss.  Most Americans lack the perspective, rituals and interpersonal support that promote recovery. The book asserts that it’s possible to recover from the debilitating impact of grief if you take time to deliver the emotional messages tied to the loss you’ve experienced.

Grief recovery can start immediately.  Funny how when someone sprains an ankle we know to immediately immobilize the injury, but when someone suffers a crippling loss, we tell them “it takes time.”

I’ve been experiencing some loss of my own this week, and a friend (to whom I recommended the book long ago) turned the tables and encouraged me to pull it off the shelf. For the last two and a half weeks, friends have been saying so many things to me as I’ve been struggling:

“Go write that next book!  You’ll show them!”

“You’ll book plenty of gigs without them!”

“Let’s go out and get drunk and celebrate your freedom!”

“Do you want some of my Valium?”

Everyone means well, but these suggestions are simply what James and Friedman call “short term energy releasing behaviors,” the things we do that temporarily make us feel better and distract us from the pain we actually need to address.  The authors say that STERB’s are dangerous because they work – they distract us from the pain for a short time. However, using STERB’s to cope with loss end up hurting far more than helping.

Think of all the STERB’s people use to deal with pain – drugs, sex, alcohol, quickie relationships, exercise, even Facebook rants.  It’s like a kettle of boiling water, James and Friedman say.  You can cork it up and keep the steam inside, waiting for the inevitable explosion, or you can deal with the heat making the water boil.  For me, back in 1999, Columbine was a trigger that released the steam that had been building in me for more than 20 years.

When I think about so many of the conduct issues we face in our student organizations or in our general college populations, my mind always goes back to STERB’s.  I wonder if that student abusing drugs or alcohol is doing it as a STERB instead of dealing with the unresolved grief from the death of a high school friend.  How many students seek legal or illegal pharmaceutical relief for short-term relief rather than coping with their parents’ divorce?

So many losses are grieved ineffectively.  Loss of a job.  Loss of a relationship. Even acquisition of a sexually transmitted disease. Shame around body image changes. Loss of friendships.  Death of beloved pets.  Grief is in every person’s life, and the inability to recover from that grief creates so much negativity and harm all around us.

People want to take us out for a night of drunken partying after a break-up because they think it will make us feel better.  Actually, it’s making them feel better, because it’s so much easier to buy your friend a drink to numb his pain than to have an emotionally uncomfortable conversation in which he shares the pain of a humiliating loss.

I saw this happen just this week.  A young man I’ve mentored texted me from a Denver nightclub Saturday night to tell me that his mother had died of a sudden heart attack the day before. His well-meaning friends took him out to get his mind off of it.

His mother had died 24 hour earlier, and he was at a club texting his mentor. I took him to breakfast the next morning, and we spent an hour talking about his mom.

Tonight, I pulled the Grief Recovery Handbook off the shelf.  As much as I wanted to kill a half bottle of whiskey, instead I sat down and started writing.  Actual grief recovery takes a lot longer than one hour, but five pages of handwritten notes later, I felt measurably better.  It reminded me that I have to do some work to keep my mind healthy. Maker’s Mark wasn’t going to do that for me.

When our friends and members are suffering, and when they are turning to STERB’s in order to cope with loss, the answer isn’t rules or risk management.  It’s about giving them that safe, shame-free space where people can be sad, or angry, or helpless – whatever natural emotion he or she needs to feel in the face of loss.

It’s about asking…

What’s going on?  What happened?

Are you sad about something? 

Is something weighing on you right now?

Maybe there’s someone else on campus who you can talk to. Let’s find that person together.

And then, instead of trying to make them feel better or look forward, just let them feel what they need to feel, no matter how messy it might be.

I am no longer with CAMPUSPEAK

As of today, I am no longer involved with CAMPUSPEAK as a staff member, speaker, or shareholder. Other than fulfilling the 15 or so appearances already under contract for the remainder of 2014, I am entirely disassociated from the company. I will continue to speak (booking myself — contact me directly, please), publish and blog.

I am not leaving higher education or abandoning any of my involvements, and I look forward to seeing my colleagues at conferences this upcoming academic year.

I wish the speakers, facilitators and staff the very best in their excellent efforts. I am grateful for the amazing experience I had founding a company and leading a top-notch team for nearly 16 years.

Please update your contact information for me. My email is now sullivan@intentionalTJS.com and you can continue to access me via my website which you might notice I have moved to www.intentionalTJS.com – please update any bookmarks.

I look forward to announcing new projects in the near future.

Disrupting the Greek social model

Reeb-cust2Every one of your members is listening to a different song in her ears as she walks to class each morning.  Twenty years ago, a phone ringing sounded the same everywhere. Today, Rihanna plays when your mom calls.  Every Facebook profile has a unique cover photo.  A generation ago, you went to the one big dining hall on campus to see what was for dinner. Today, you have dozens of choices in your food court.  Do you feel like Asian fusion tonight, or maybe just a chicken sandwich and a trip to the enormous salad bar?

Today’s college student cannot imagine how few choices those before you had.  Don’t want an early class?  Take it online.  Android or iOS?  You can customize your shoes (see photo). There are a dozen types of yoga classes offered within a mile of where you live. You have a remarkable opportunity to customize everything in your environment toward your tastes.

Unless you join a college fraternity or sorority.  Then, you spend half your life doing what others have planned for you – in most cases, almost identical to what the group did this same day last year. In a world of ultra customization, we are still trying to compel our members to fall in line and do things alike.  Oblivious to the signal it sends young people of a customized generation, we wear a similar outfit or t-shirt during recruitment to show unity.  We spend entire weeks – recruitment and Greek Week, specifically – herding from one group event to another.

Customization is not normal in so much of what we do in fraternities and sororities. What if I want to bring two dates to formal?  I can Skype into a job interview, but I can’t Skype into a chapter meeting?

I’m 21 years old.  It’s easier to simply socialize with the brothers or sisters I actually enjoy at a local bar.  Why should I want to pay hundreds of dollars, wear a wrist bracelet and bring my own regulated amount of beer on a smelly school bus to a farm thirty miles from campus?

The way fraternities and sororities do “social” is in desperate need of disruption. We are stuck in a rut, spending thousands of dollars to entertain our members with parties, mixers and formals, trying to please varying tastes with a single event. Freshmen acting like idiots while seniors stand around bored. People on their phones because they don’t want to participate in some silly Greek Week game.  It’s an outdated model.  Your members like to do a wide variety of things, and there’s no way your well-meaning social committee can please everyone.

I have an idea.

What about taking that enormous social budget (admit it, it’s your single largest budget item) and cutting it in half.  We don’t want to change too dramatically at first, so use half of it for the large events you simply can’t imagine not doing – your formal, that fall mixer that you’ve always done, the party you’re known for.  But, then don’t assign a use for the other half.  Let members plan their own events, and then come apply for funds to make them happen?

Brothers or sisters can apply to the social committee for funds for appropriate events. A group of sisters might want to go to a hockey game.  A group of brothers might want to go to the symphony.  You’ll be surprised the things your members want to do when you give them license to put together smaller, more customized brotherhood and sisterhood experiences.  It might be so much fun that a year from now, you get rid of the big events altogether.

Stop thinking that brotherhood and sisterhood only happens in large, unruly events that are impossible to properly control and monitor.  Some of your best times with brothers and sisters will be in small groups doing cool things you never expected to do.

Of course, you need to set some guidelines.  All events must have a risk management plan. All events must be open to all brothers or sisters, and they must be planned and publicized two weeks prior to the event.

What if your social committee got out of the planning and risk management business and instead became a mechanism for rewarding and encouraging the creativity of its members? What if instead of worrying about risky behavior of members and (unsuccessfully) trying to regulate alcohol consumption by your members at your social events, you started funding or subsidizing cool events that weren’t so risky?

We live in a world where you can crowdfund a film, a business, or a wacky new invention.  Your members are choosing their adventure in every other part of their lives.  Perhaps it’s time for the social part of fraternity and sorority to catch up.

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