For many returning students at UNC, this new semester will be significant because of who won’t be back on campus.
Andrew Crabtree, one of my best friends, died this past June. He was 19, and he had spent the past two-and-a-half years struggling with a rare form of cancer. His death followed the death of another student, Julia Nan, that same week. Laura Rozo (with whom I was also friends), David Shannon, Faith Hedgepath, Stedman Gage and Trevor Dolan all left us last year. I really hope I’m not forgetting anyone.
As I have, those who knew them must return to campus this year with the knowledge that their friends will not be there. Andrew was my roommate for my first two years of college, and it’s been particularly difficult these past couple of days to realize that now summer is over, there is no longer any other excuse for his absence as I move into my new room. There are a lot of things we did together at UNC that I will never do again, and that’s tough to think about.
But I also recall a particularly difficult moment in the week or so leading up to his death. It had just been reported that Julia Nan had been killed, and someone on my Facebook timeline wrote something to this effect: “Another student dead — please make this stop.”
At that point, Andrew was in hospice, and I read that status knowing full well that within the next week or two another student would die. I wondered what I could say to this person, or what they expected. An apology? That people would stop dying? That Andrew hold on for another few months to give the rest of us some time to recover? And what would Andrew think if he saw that kind of post?
For all I know, he did.
At UNC, we enjoy conceiving of ourselves as a tight-knit community in which the death of even a single member is a blow to us all. But I’ve come to think it’s important to treat every passing — whether in college, before or after — as a unique and isolated incident. Placing a student’s death within the context of a narrative created by previous deaths has the potential to trivialize the circumstances and aftermath of the individual deaths, just as it does in wartime or under any other set of catastrophic conditions. We are not in the midst of war or famine, nor is there a basilisk on the loose. We must accept that an unusually high number of students died last year without taking their deaths to mean anything other than what their individual passings mean to those who knew and loved them. Andrew’s death plus any other does not equal anything more than the sum of the grief endured by their loved ones.
So, if we want to want to grieve for our fellow students, how best to do so? The short answer: I don’t know.
But as I was writing the eulogy for his funeral, I thought about how much better I would have felt if I’d written one for him before he died. That sounds morbid, but I would have loved to have already known exactly what I would be losing if he were to be gone from my life.
One of the things I said about Andrew was that he was the model college student — enthusiastic, hard-working and adventurous — despite the fact that he knew he likely wouldn’t live to receive his degree (not that he told anyone that). I think that it’s hard for us, as college students, to put ourselves in his shoes. This is a time of our lives usually seen as preparation for something real and meaningful as opposed to a real and meaningful experience in itself. Maybe we’ll die before we receive our degrees, too. There’s no way to know. Just remember that college students aren’t proto-people. We’re people, and we deserve to live as such.
I don’t think there’s anything profound about my imploring you to appreciate your friends, not take anything for granted, etc., but I’ll say it anyway. We can’t predict or prevent death at this age, but we can prepare for it in the way we relate to and appreciate the very fragile beings we happen to love, including ourselves.
Henry Gargan is the editor-in-chief of Thrill City, erstwhile assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel, and a junior journalism and global studies major at UNC. He also contributes to Lacrosse Magazine, The Raleigh News & Observer and The Chapel Hill News. Follow him on Twitter @hgargan.