As a compassionate university, Vrije Universiteit Brussel wants to be open about loss, mourning and illnessThursday 17 November - Students and staff of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel gathered around the Monument of Compassion on the Etterbeek campus at dusk. Together they commemorated the members of the VUB community who passed away in 2021 and 2022. With this annual moment of remembrance and other initiatives, VUB makes space for suffering and consolation at the heart of its community.
During the Moment of Compassion, the VUB community commemorates the people it has had to say goodbye to. In the past two years there have been 28, including honorary rectors Paul De Knop and Caroline Pauwels, who both died of cancer in August. Students and staff also pause to remember fellow humans who are ill, caring for others or going through a difficult period, so they feel supported and not isolated.
The Moment of Compassion memorial ceremony takes place each year the day before St-V, the celebration at which VUB and its French-speaking sister university ULB commemorate their founder, Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen. This year, for the first time, St-V is taking place over two days, with the first part on the same evening as the Moment of Compassion.
In 2019, under the rectorship of Caroline Pauwels, VUB signed a declaration of intent committing itself to be a compassionate university. Through a variety of actions, the university aims to clearly recognise illness, loss and grief as part of its community and involve all members of that community in support. The annual moment of remembrance, the Monument of Compassion and training sessions for leaders and faculty on how to deal with grief, loss or illness when a colleague or student is faced with it are just some of the accomplishments.
Wishing tree as a farewell ritual
Starting this year, VUB is including a wishing tree as a regular part of the memorial ceremony.
Rector Jan Danckaert: "We call out the names of our deceased and hang their name cards in our wishing tree. It’s a ritual to collectively say goodbye to those we have lost. To express our appreciation. To fill the void they have left behind. It helps us make room for compassion and grief, for warmth and connection at times when our community is struggling. Because that’s the kind of university we want to be. A compassionate university."
After the memorial ceremony, those present reminisced about the people they have lost.
In November 2019, the Monument of Compassion for students and staff was inaugurated on the VUB campus in Etterbeek, under the rectorship of Caroline Pauwels. The statue by artist Philip Aguirre y Otegui depicts one person placing a cover over another and is based on a photo from a Spanish newspaper of a soldier covering a refugee with a blanket. VUB is also investing ¤550,000 in the development of an interdisciplinary centre of expertise on compassionate communities.