We lose students all too often at Chico State. Some die from accidents, some from overdose, some by their own hand. Not many die as Melinda Driggers did last Thursday, though, on campus, in the middle of the day, in the middle of our Student Services Center.
We got an email Monday from the University, telling us of Melinda’s death, and my breath caught in my throat as soon as I saw the subject of the email: Passing of student Melinda Driggers.
Melinda was a non-traditional student. She came to the university after she had raised her son and twin daughters, after she had married and then lost her husband suddenly. She was the one who found him, unresponsive, much like she was found on Thursday. She performed CPR on her husband, that day, hoping to save her husband, and I imagine, her own life. She donated her husband’s organs so that others may live, and that her husband may live on. In a paper she wrote for me last semester, she said that knowing she had done everything she could to save him, and then donating his organs, brought her peace.
Her first semester at Chico, she became a Social Work major, and enrolled in my class. She was quiet, but a guiding force in discussions in my class. When she spoke, it was deliberate. She listened critically, and made invaluable contributions to the class.
I tell stories about my kids and my husband a lot in my class and often; she would nod her head in empathy when I complained about late nights spent with sick kids, the trials of married life, and juggling work and school and family life. She had been there; she had done that.
Life had worn her down by the time I met her. She carried a bit of extra weight, her hair was always a bit disheveled, and she always looked tired. The death of her husband had left her heartbroken, and trying to go back to school and rebuild her life in her late 40s had been an overwhelming experience.
Melinda never complained about anything though. When I mentioned the expense of college, time management issues, difficulty with school schedules, she would watch me intently, smile in a knowing way, then would shake her head slightly, nod in agreement, and go back to writing her class notes. She had been there, done that before.
She was worried about money, and doing well in school, and trying to survive after the loss of her husband. She was still traumatized over finding her husband unresponsive, performing CPR until paramedics arrived to take over.
There are a lot of Melindas out there, worrying, stressed over finances, then suffering a catastrophic event. Most who die relatively young are impoverished, most are hard workers who have just had a bad turn of events. They die younger, because of what the stress of “just getting by” does to a person.
This is what stress does to people like Melinda, people who, despite working hard, being good people, doing the best they can with what they have, still can’t make ends meet. I emphasize to my students every day in class: learn how to manage your stress because life is hard, and it’ll kick you when you are down and some of us have more of a safety net than others, and if you don’t figure out a way to handle the stress, you won’t make your 50th birthday.
Cemeteries are filled with folks like Melinda, people whose only fault was they lived in a world without a safety net for blue collar workers.
Melinda’s husband didn’t make it to 50, and neither did Melinda.
I walked into class Monday afternoon, the same classroom and the same subject, Sociology of Stress, where Melinda sat 7 weeks ago. Last semester, we talked about the stressful lives we all live in this fast paced world, and we talked about the diseases and illnesses that are more likely when stress gets out of control. We watched videos about the stress of inequality and poverty and wrote critically about stress, and the students analyzed their own sources of stress. We meditated and practiced Qi gong, we learned breathing techniques and relaxation methods, and still, for Melinda, it was too late. The stress of trying to get by, the stress of losing her husband, the daily stress of juggling family life and school life and volunteering hours, became too much last Thursday.
From the report from the University, I suspect that Melinda had either a heart attack or a stroke while in the Student Services Center, but regardless of the acute cause, the death certificate won’t mention the underlying stress that was the major contributing factor in her death.
I thought I was going to be okay when I walked back into that classroom, but as I scanned the room full of students, the reality of Melinda not sitting in her seat, her books open, her pen ready, her shaggy brown hair framing her glasses as she organized her papers, hit me, and as I faced my students, I didn’t hide my tears. Instead, I told them about Melinda, and I showed them where she used to sit, and we talked about learning how to manage your stress better, and about taking time for yourself, and learning how to say no to too many obligations, because this life is harder for some people than others, but you never know that it could be you, until it’s too late.
I hope you find peace, Melinda, and that finally, you can stop worrying.