Midtown: Community

Students find support in time of grief

Death is a fact of life, yes. It means we have lived. Knowing that doesn’t make the loss any easier for the earth angels we leave behind to mourn.

Nothing – save time, perhaps – does, really.

Grief is hard. We take special care when children must endure the illness or death of someone they love. We gingerly guide them through the stages of grief that can leave even the strongest of us in a muddle of misery; isolating ourselves amid denial, anger, guilt, depression and loneliness. We do the same with our elders.

During the past six years, though, David Fajgenbaum has pioneered a way to help grieving college students move forward with support from their peers.

In memory of his own mother, Fajgenbaum co-founded Ailing Mothers and Fathers, or AMF, which has grown into National Students of AMF. The nonprofit organization based in the Triangle connects college students grieving the illness or death of a loved one so they can support each other.

Last weekend, 55 people interested in providing bereavement support to college students attended the NSAMF’s 5th annual National Conference on College Student Grief at the Fairfield Inn & Suites at Brier Creek.

Forty of the attendees were students from around the country, representing schools such as N.C. State University, Meredith College and UNC-Chapel Hill. Other representatives hailed from Harvard University, Purdue University and the University of Florida, as well as schools in Michigan, Oklahoma, New York and Wisconsin. Joining them were college faculty members, and NSAMF volunteers and board members.

“Grief is something nobody wants to talk about,” Fajgenbaum said. “Unfortunately, that means when we are faced with grief, when we feel like we can’t talk about things, or when things like what happened in Aurora (Colo.) happen in a community, support is hard to find.

“What’s important is to, year-round, have opportunities for discussion about these kinds of things.”

It was something Fajgenbaum needed in 2003, and didn’t have.

Two weeks before he arrived at Georgetown University as a freshman, Fajgenbaum’s mother, Anne Marie, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She died his sophomore year.

“I really struggled during those 15 months,” Fajgenbaum said of the time from his mother’s diagnosis and death. “I had no one to talk to on campus, and I was feeling really alone; helpless and guilty.

“I believed no one could possibly understand what I was going through or relate to my pain.”

Fact is, an estimated one in three college students experience the death of a family member or close friend each year, he said. And most of them go it alone.

In his mother’s memory, Fajgenbaum started AMF as an on-campus, peer-led support group. Within a year, requests from about 10 other college campuses for more information about how to create support groups at their schools prompted Fajgenbaum to research issues of grief among college students.

He incorporated as a nonprofit in 2006, a year before he graduated from Georgetown, to provide a framework to assist students nationwide. In addition to peer-led support, AMF also is a pioneer in promoting community service as a way for students to honor loved ones they’ve lost, an outlet to channel grief with something positive, and as an opportunity for friends to get involved and show their support for grieving friends.

Now, there are 44 AMF chapters nationwide, and 26 more are in the startup phase, said Kiri Thompson, who led the AMF chapter during her 2008-2009 senior year at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She now volunteers as the NSAMF chapter development director.

“AMF is invaluable,” said Thompson, who helps students start chapters on campuses across the country. “It’s a great place for them to feel like they’re regaining some control over their life, and empowering themselves and other people through their grief journey.

“With AMF, they don’t have to go it alone. There is support.”

It took a lot for Meredith College senior Sarah Miller to find that out. Grieving over what doctor’s accurately projected would be her mother’s last six months of life following a years-long battle with breast cancer, Miller signed up for AMF emails from Meredith’s chapter.

“I hesitated,” said Miller, a second-year president of the Meredith’s AMF chapter. “Honestly, I was very scared, at first, even walking to the support group. I had never really talked to anybody about what I was experiencing, so there was a fear of rejection, that no one would understand what I was going through or they’d judge me for it.”

Immediately, though, Miller said, “I felt comfortable.”

“That was the first time I ever felt like anybody understood what I was going through. It gave me a sense of hope, a sense that there was still something good out there, that there were things to look forward to.

“I’m so grateful.”