UC Berkeley should guarantee bereavement leave for students

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The initial, unexpected phone call. The state of shock, the breakdown when reality hits. Holding it together until you can be with your loved ones. The cards, flowers, food, hugs, well-meaning people, ceremony logistics, burial options. After all that, hopefully, the time to process it. This is a loss hard to imagine and impossible to prepare for.

Now, add in being a college student. The constant papers and exams, job and internship interviews, a busy social scene, club meetings, high expectations and pressure, and trying to figure out who you are and where your life is going.

It was the first day of her senior year when my little sister got the news that her best friend had committed suicide. Her world collapsed with that phone call, yet the rest of the world went on around her. Confusion and guilt overwhelmed her sensitive nature and broken heart. She continued bravely through the rest of the semester, and then one week into the spring semester, she followed in her friend’s path. 

On a cold January weekend in New York City, I received the phone call with news of my sister’s suicide. Less than 24 hours later, I landed in Los Angeles — home to the family I had left. Per Bloomingdale’s company policy, I received one week of bereavement leave and additional time to account for the distance I had to travel. I was able to put my life on pause, even if only for a short time, and know that my work would still be there later. I was entitled to this time, and I used and valued every minute. 

At UC Berkeley, faculty are entitled to a certain amount of time off given the death or serious illness of a family member or equivalent. Students, however, are left to navigate a stressful time largely on their own. Potentially unresponsive or unaccommodating professors can make a painful situation even worse. Whose first thought, in the face of grief, is to figure out how to reschedule that Econ midterm or get an extension on a paper? 

The idea of structured support for grieving students is not new. Other schools are adopting bereavement leave policies that allow students grief absences, and communicating this during orientation and on every syllabus. UC Berkeley has always been, and should always be, a leader in positive change. In adopting this trend, it can immediately impact tens of thousands of students. The experience of bereavement so often goes unacknowledged. In this most critical time, the school needs to show the students that their well-being comes first. 

Of course, it will pose some logistical challenges, and likely most professors would be gracious regardless. But someone whose life is truly and drastically altered by grief should have, if at all possible, one less problem to worry about and coordinate. 

ASUC senators who want to prioritize student mental health are currently considering a Grief Absence Policy for Students (GAPS) as a legislative item for the upcoming year, with the goal of having the policy approved by the UC Berkeley Academic Senate. In the meantime, professors can support students by including a grief and loss absence policy in their syllabi. An example of such a policy is: “If you encounter extenuating circumstances that affect your academic life, including but not limited to, bereavement of immediate family and loved ones, please come and speak to me and I will make every effort to secure reasonable accommodation.”

Between 25 and 48 percent of college students have lost a loved one within the past two years. Of those, many never mention it, even as it affects their lives as students. All members of this community — the heart of this campus — deserve a basic level of support and understanding. While not a complete solution to the issue of grief and loss, providing students with equivalent rights demonstrates that the campus cares about its students and that a grieving student is not alone. It shows that the professors, staff and other students are standing with students in sympathy. In the words of author George Eliot, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”

Mina Matsumoto is a UC Berkeley JD/MBA student.