Message Regarding Death of Student

Posted on September 30th, 2019 by

Dear Gustavus parents and guardians,

The message pasted below was sent to all members of the Gustavus community this morning, and I wanted to be sure to share it with you as well. Never in my nearly thirty years working in higher education have I had to send two student death related communications in such a short time span and I am so very sad to have to do so. The two circumstances, while a short time apart, are very different and quite separate. My prayers are with Josh’s family and friends. I encourage you to reach out to your Gusties and check in with them.  I’m including below the notes I sent previously on how to help our young people deal with loss.

Make time to check in with your student and ask how they are feeling about the recently shared information. Encourage them to talk with you about their reactions. Discussions with your student should be open and frank without dramatizing the death or dwelling on it un-necessarily.

Students will likely react at all points on a continuum from crying or agitation to numbness and lack of any expression while also understanding that some students will not feel personally connected to the loss of a student they did not know. Expect a wide variety of responses.  Acknowledge and model an appropriate range of emotional expression.

Explain that the pain of grief may cause a variety of behaviors in their peers and that acting out, being quiet or laughing can all indicate different ways for a student to be experiencing pain in their own way. Understanding and acceptance of the fact that everyone grieves or reacts to pain or fear differently should be emphasized.

Encourage students to be supportive of one another. Provide a message of hope. Keep in mind that young people often have an inflated view of the power they have over the lives of others.

Please do not hesitate to reach out to the staff in the Dean of Students Office if you have questions or concerns. We want to join you in supporting your Gusties.


JoNes R. VanHecke

Vice President for Student Life & Dean of Students

Community-l Message sent on 9/30/19:

SUBJECT: Death of student Joshua Birchem

DATE: September 30, 2019

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you that sophomore student Joshua Birchem died suddenly last night on campus. All of us feel the pain of this loss and share our thoughts and prayers with Joshua’s family and the friends, classmates, teachers, and mentors who shaped his Gustavus journey. As members of our close-knit community, please support each other with kindness and compassion during this difficult time.

There will be a community gathering at 4 p.m. today in The Dive. Students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to join the Office of the Chaplains and Dean of Students Office as our campus begins to grieve, share, and process this loss.

The death of a peer/young person is particularly difficult and I urge you to remember that none of you are alone and that many are here to listen, help and care. Gusties, if you or one of your friends is struggling with this or another recent loss, remember to:

o   Demonstrate love and respect by being attentive.

o   Encourage talking about feelings and about the deceased friend.

o   Listen, no matter what!

o   Understand that your presence is important, even if talking may be limited.

o   Share your experience with loss, but focus on the person you are supporting.

o   Help to identify others to talk to (i.e., Counseling Center, Residence Life, Dean of Student Life, Chaplains’ Office).

In response to this sad time, the College will make available the resources of the Counseling Center, the Dean of Students Office and Chaplains’ Office. Specifically, if you need assistance during business hours, please stop by the Dean of Students Office on the main floor of the Campus Center and office staff will connect you with resources.

Specifically for students, the Counseling Center will have additional appointment times reserved this week for students needing assistance.  Students are encouraged to share with front desk staff that they are coming in for this reason so that they can be directed to these reserved times. Students could also use “Let’s Talk” Thursday or Friday 1:30-2:30 in the A/V Preview Room in the basement of the Library for drop-in consultation services. No appointment necessary. “Let’s Talk” is available daily throughout the academic year. The counseling center also has resources (books, informational sheets) available to anyone on campus looking for ways to address grief and loss.

College Chaplains Siri Erickson and Maggie Falenschek will be available in the Chaplains’ Office in Old Main to counsel community members by appointment. Drop-ins are welcome or you can email the chaplains directly at to make an appointment. In addition, Christ Chapel and the Bonnier Multifaith Center are open for anyone who needs a quiet place for reflection or prayer.

If you need immediate support, please call the 24-hour Campus Safety line at 507-933-8888 and ask to speak to the on-call Dean of Students.



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