One Thursday afternoon in late October, not yet aware of the sad news that awaited them, the students in the English 100 class walked into the room and took their seats as they do at the beginning of every class. Shortly after, Dr. Richard Beyer and Katherine Swain of the Psychological Services walked into the room caring the burden of having to break the painful news that one of their fellow classmates had passed away.
“Unfortunately we have some very sad news to report, one of your classmates was tragically killed in an automobile accident last night,” said Beyer to the class.
The English 100 student killed, David Echauri, was the third and most recent PCC student to have passed away suddenly in just the last two months. With death being a distressing part of life and something that will greatly affect us all, the team at the psychological services feels that the best way to cope with grief is by learning to manage emotions, and seeking help when needed.
“I wish I could pull out a manual that tells you how to deal with grief but there’s no manual for it because it touches each person differently from their own life experiences. So there is no one way to be able to do it,” Beyer said.
A year ago, Beyer attended a UC meeting and heard about a program called the Cares Team, which is a program designed to help students and faculty manage their emotions in the aftermath of a loss. Then last spring, when two female students were killed in an automobile accident on the 110 freeway late one night, Beyer and three other psychologists decided to formalize the PCC Cares Team and develop a brochure because they knew it would not be the last time students and faculty would be presented with a loss.
“There are common signs [in the grieving process] and if they last longer than X amount of time, you may want some individual attention, guidance or counseling session,” said Dr. Amanda Han of the PCC Cares Team and Psychological Services. “[The brochure shows] where we are and what we offer so we usually just put it out that way during our first meeting with the students. And we offer that to the teacher as well.”
The PCC Cares Team offers three levels of assistance to both faculty and staff. The first level is for the team to consult with faculty and staff about the tragedy and help them to explore their feelings so they are better able to handle a profound and significant discussion with their students. The second level is when the team meets with the teacher and students directly in the classroom to discuss the tragedy and help students understand the grieving process, as well as what to look out for in identifying symptoms. The third level are for those students and faculty that reach out and request individual guidance or voluntary small group discussions.
“It [grief] may just hit them on a different level and in some it may not register,” Han said. “Others, it may hit them harder, and so we’re there to present some of the common possibilities that we can walk them through and try to elicit some responses from them. And sometimes they don’t have any responses and that’s OK too.”
For teachers who are extremely close to their students, this sudden loss can hit them as hard as losing a loved one. This rings true for Echauri’s English 100 instructor, Gabriella Pina. Pina had Echauri in class on a Tuesday and found out about his death the very next day from the English division secretary who was notified by Beyer.
“She told me and I took it pretty hard,” said Pina. “I tend to have really good connections with my students so it was difficult for me for the rest of that week.”
One of the exercises that the Cares Team encourage students and teachers to do is to find a way to remember the departed. In the case of Pina’s class, every student wrote a letter to Echauri, which Pina is going to bind and give to his family.
“I think that helped with the healing process, but it was a very difficult class,” said Pina. “It was emotional for everybody.”
Though the Cares Team offers the help of the psychological services, the teachers are really the ones who spend the most time with the students inside the school environment.
“We offer our service to them [instructors] but sometimes the instructor is the best one to handle it for their class because they know their class well,” Beyer said. “Sometimes it’s not.”
Being a member of PCC Cares Team can be a difficult task. When they are notified of a students’ death, the first thing they do is look at the students’ class schedule, then they contact the instructors to find out how they should approach the class, and then, if requested, they inform each class with the heartbreaking news.
“I must say it’s a difficult thing to do, you go in there with heavy hearted emotions,” Han said. “It’s very unfortunate and very sad, and it can impact so many people.”
“Tragedies happen in people’s lives if you live long enough and you’re going to have them,” Beyer added. “And it’s not that you have them, it’s how you manage the feelings and thoughts that are connected with those tragedies and your resilience with that. We find that our students are very resilient, they’re extremely resilient.”
Since starting this program this semester, the PCC Cares Team has been extremely successful in the new program. They have found people to be willing to take the help that their services offer and they are confident that they can continue to help students and faculty be more successful in their lives.
“The ultimate goal is to have people manage their thoughts and feelings so those thoughts and feelings don’t affect their academic progress and their success here at PCC,” Beyer said. “What we have found through a lot of research over the years is that the students who can manage their personal difficulties effectively tend to be successful students. Those who can’t end up dropping out, so psychological services is all set up to help them manage their personal difficulties so they can stay in school, be successful, graduate, transfer, get a career and a successful life.”