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Grieving the Loss of an Institution

September 28, 2021

Friday, at the end of a full and stress-filled week, I learned that my undergraduate college was permanently closing its doors. A not-so-great week for me just plummeted into a steady river of tears, built up over the challenges of self-employment, Coronavirus, children driving cross-country, social distancing, keeping my elderly parents safe from the virus, the dog’s unexpected surgery, and other extraneous factors.

Alumni were given a heads up about the possibility of closure, so this didn’t come as a surprise for most of us. But like the death of a loved one, even though you know it’s coming, when it arrives, we still feel the intense grief.

MacMurray College had 174 years of greatness under its belt. As a small, private college, it sits in the middle of central Illinois, in the heartland of our country. I attended MacMurray from 1985 to 1989 and moved away from home at the age of 17 – saying yes to an admission letter and a 4-hour drive from home. I was trusting (in the days before virtual internet tours) that this was the place for me.

I didn’t know that this institution was going to be my mentor, parent, and family. I had no idea what to expect from the college experience – I was naïve, and MacMurray took me under her wing and nurtured me in every way possible.

You need friends to laugh and cry with? Done.

You need classes that stretch your belief system and comfort zones? Covered.

You need challenges that help you prove that you can survive tough times? Check. 

You need a place where you feel a sense of belonging? Ouch. That was the tender spot. That’s the deepest and most intense pain. My sense of belonging was fine-tuned in the confines of MacMurray College. The caliber of students, the unconditional acceptance, the sense of family, and the culture steeped in tradition, history, knowledge, and love all allowed me to sink in and trust others. To feel the camaraderie. To stop judging as a high school student, and to begin practicing acceptance as a member of this warm community.

I became an adult at MacMurray. I learned how to balance finals and friends, laundry and term papers, feelings and unconditional love. Never was there a professor who you felt was letting you coast on through – but they were there at all hours to help you and cheer you on. On the last day of living on campus, even President Mitchell helped me, a hot mess of nerves, calm down before speaking at graduation with his sweet jokes. The campus was small enough to offer almost everyone a chance to be a leader if you wanted the opportunity. We practiced our communication, leadership and forgiveness skills on each other and still ended up feeling the sense of belonging. That’s a win-win.

The phrase “alma mater” is used to describe the school we once attended. The phrase comes from Latin words meaning “nourishing mother.” I spoke with one of my college friends this morning and we discussed the feeling of loss – like a parent or grandparent dying. MacMurray is my alma mater, a mother of sorts that nourished my mind, my heart, and my being. She was there to course-correct, to encourage, to stretch, and to reel in. She was there to provide and to love. She was there for all of us who were her students and children. My heart is flooded with understanding and resolution as I connect the dots between the nurturing I received from MacMurray and the authenticity of my grief.

As I sit here writing this, my Facebook notifications alert me of yet another friend who posted pictures, mementos, and memories from our 4 years there. I smile and remember the good times. I pendulate between warm memories and that melancholy feeling of eventually not having a physical campus to go back to – like selling your childhood home. Without a doubt, the friends I made at MacMurray are the best friends a person could have. They are brothers and sisters to me and continue to help me feel comforted and accompanied.

As a grief specialist, I recognize that I am mourning the loss of my place of belonging. While this kind of grief may be stuffed down, denied, minimized, judged or even ridiculed, it’s very real. The grief experience is a collection of emotions and feelings that occur with the loss of someone or something meaningful to you.

The closing of this institution is also happening concurrently with other stressful events as Coronavirus creates losses of many kinds for almost everyone. Let me assure you: it’s not silly. It’s not stupid to be upset over a part of your history ending. A part of you goes with it, as we are all part of what makes the institution meaningful.

When a church, school, agency, or workplace changes ownership, changes leadership or closes, these suggestions may be helpful:

  • Much of the pain or sadness that you feel comes from not having the camaraderie, the people, or the familiar comfort of doing things the same way. As much as you can, stay in touch with those that are important to you and make the effort to keep your connections alive.
  • We cannot change the past, and the sense of powerlessness does not mean that we are. Take an inventory of what would be helpful to help you move through your grief in healthy ways. Let the tears surface. Stay with your pain and tend to yourself gently. Slow down and prepare that cup of tea. Call a friend. Go to bed early. Drink your water.
  • Remember that institutions can be honored, just like people. Reminisce with others and plan a ceremony or ritual to honor contributions and places where the institution made a difference. Share pictures. Plan a happy hour, a dinner, or a reunion and be close to those who provide comfort to you. Tell stories. Toast the friendships, inside jokes, and family by choice that you have gained.
  • As much as possible, try not to judge your emotions and your reactions to the changes to which you are adjusting. Grieving effectively involves granting yourself a lot of grace.

 Sweet MacMurray, you may not be receiving new students, but I know that you live on forever in the souls of those that you took under your wing.

The part of us that perseveres, that never quits, that grits our teeth and says “oh hell no, I’m not going down” – that’s MacMurray.

The part of us that can beat others at trivia nights and Jeopardy tournaments – oh yeah baby, that’s MacMurray (Core Curriculum!).

The part of us that can sit quietly next to a friend that is grieving or hurting and not run away from discomfort – that’s MacMurray.

The part of us that can communicate clearly, calmly, and effectively – that’s MacMurray.

The part of us that loves an inside joke, a few drinks, and cherishing memories – that’s MacMurray.

The part of us that has a genuine appreciation of love and acceptance – and a sense of belonging – that’s MacMurray.

Our best to you, Mac. There are no goodbyes required when your qualities live on in us all. #MacFam

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