Almost every day, Mary Barber is reminded about the void left by her father’s death when she was 14. A friend’s dad coming to pick them up for a holiday can trigger the sadness, or a roommate calling her dad just to say hi brings the painful memory bubbling to the surface.
“You’re usually so consumed with life that you don’t realize how sad you are,” says Barber (SAR’14). “You’re too busy with classes and clubs and friends. And then the grief sneaks up on you when you least expect it, and you feel like you just got hit by a truck.”
This semester, Barber helped launch Boston University’s chapter of Actively Moving Forward (AMF), a peer-led support group for college students grieving the illness or death of a loved one. The club is not religiously affiliated, and its activities consist of support meetings, outreach efforts to educate the campus on the needs of grieving college students, and community service projects done in memory of the students’ deceased family and friends.
“You are so busy in college,” says Danielle Eble (SAR’14), a member of AMF’s executive board. “You think about the person you lost every day, but you don’t always have time to process it the way you should. AMF gives you a chance to step back and give that part of you the attention that it needs.”
A 2010 study conducted by Brooklyn College of City University of New York found that grieving college students are at a greater risk than their peers for a variety of physical, academic, social, developmental, and emotional issues. Group advisor Margaret Ross, director of Behavioral Medicine at Student Health Services, says that AMF can play an important role on campus for such grieving students. Although, she says, the group is not intended to replace professional counseling.
“This group lets students know that their peers are going through the same kinds of experiences they are,” says Ross. “Realizing you’re not the only student here who is going through this kind of loss can take you out of isolation.”
AMF estimates that as many as a third of college students are within one year of grieving the death of someone they love. It’s a reality that most people on campus don’t want to talk about, says Violet Sarosi (COM’14), another AMF e-board member. “People have no idea that their friends are struggling with this problem,” she says. “It’s something you don’t become aware of until you have lost someone, but AMF lets you be with people your age who get what you’re going though.”
Brother Larry Whitney (STH’09,’15), University chaplain for community life, says the timing of AMF’s launch this semester couldn’t be better. There have been more than half a dozen student deaths at BU in the last two years, and AMF helps students process a wide range of emotions. “The peer context is an important piece of the puzzle because a sense of belonging to a community is so important for a student’s health and well-being, especially around grief,” Whitney says.
Barber heard about AMF when she volunteered at a grief camp for children last summer. She approached Ross with the idea of bringing it to BU, and Ross suggested she get in touch with Sarosi and Eble, who had also lost their fathers. The three quickly bonded, and the club officially got off the ground in February.
AMF meetings are held every other Tuesday night. They are open-ended and confidential, and they begin with someone sharing their story of who they lost and how they are dealing with the loss. Each meeting has a theme, such as how to deal with the stresses of college life while grieving, relationships, how to share with a friend that you have lost someone, and how to handle the holidays.
Providing this kind of open forum is a central aim of the club, but AMF members also strive to channel their energy into positive community service.
“We don’t want to be a group that just sits around and talks about how sad we are,” Barber says. The group might get together to cook a meal or walk to raise money for breast cancer research. “We fully acknowledge what’s happened to us and to other people in the group, but we want to use the energy that comes from grief to get out there and become empowered.”
For more information or to learn where an AMF meeting will be held, email the group at AMFbostonuniversity@gmail.com.