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VCOM Students Find a Community in Gathering in Grief

The stressors of medical school can be momentous for any student but the addition of the loss of a family member, friend, or loved one, the stressors can seem to be almost too much, as if a hundred foot wave is crashing down onto you. VCOM-Virginia students Sarah Lowen and Hannah Depoy are no strangers to the trauma of family loss. When Sarah lost her mom in her first year of medical school, she felt as if she could only turn to one person, Hannah, because they now shared a tragic commonality, the loss of a parent. Throughout the past year, they knew they could turn to each other about their grief but what about other students who were facing the same pain?

That is when they decided to speak with Dr. Ed Magalhaes, the Assistant Professor for Psychiatry and Neuro-Behavioral Sciences at the VCOM-Virginia campus. It was decided to create a monthly support group for those who have experienced a loss of any kind. Dr. Magalhaes facilitates the meetings and it is guided by student interest and need.

Gathering In Grief (GIG) is meant to be a safe place for those students dealing with loss to release those unbearable stresses and emotions. It is a place where they can come together with other students who are dealing with the same pain and find a support system.

When asked about why they decided to create this support group, Sarah Lowen had this to say, “Hannah and I decided to create GIG in the hopes to support our fellow students in their loss and grief. It's always difficult to know what to say or how to support someone who has experienced loss. It is our hope that this group will provide a space for students to heal, to be open, and to feel comfort in connection.”

The comfort to know that another classmate understands what one is going through is a bond that lasts for a lifetime. VCOM students are already a part of a community or a family as some students like to call it, but GIG is there to be a space where others can find a person, or community of people, who understand the unspoken complexities of losing a loved one, allowing for a growing support system amidst the chaos of medical school.

“Sarah and I established an unspoken pact that we would text one another “Let’s go on a walk,” on rough days. This allowed us to easily slip outside between classes where we could share with one another. We have found that while stress exacerbates grief, academic pressures often cause us to feel like there is little time or emotional energy for addressing grief, creating a viscous cycle,” said Hannah Depoy.

Everyone grieves in their own way, there is no “wrong” or “right” way. Sarah said, “The most powerful tool I learned to utilize in the wake of my mom's suicide was vulnerability. Healing in the wake of loss is a unique journey for everyone.”

Gathering in Grief is aimed at fostering an environment of unwavering support. “As Sarah and I reflected on the number of classmate’s likely juggling grief in addition to the demands of medical school, we mulled over ways to create something similar to our lets-go-on-a-walk-texts for our peers. It happened to be during this same period of time that Cassie, our fearless Student Services leader, also experienced loss and began brainstorming with us.”

When asked about the first meeting of GIG, Hannah said, “As I shared with the others after our first Gathering in Grief meeting, a nice cry and a chance to share in the company of friendly, understanding souls does wonders and I am hopeful that Gathering in Grief is the start of something meaningful for each of us.”