It has been a week since Valparaiso University Pastor Darlene Grega took her own life. And slowly, the Valparaiso community struggles to deal with her loss and finds a way to move forward.

Unlike my time at Valpo, there is now the internet (email on the university level was just in its infancy for students my senior year) to quickly spread information. With good intentions, the Valparaiso leadership let the campus know of her passing. Regretably, the first communications omited the fact that her death had been a suicide.  Students found out through the news and internet that she had taken her own life.  I’m not sure why the university didn’t disseminate that news right away. Maybe it was that paternalistic response to protect the students. 


The official letter to the Valparaiso Community from President Mark Heckler:

April 7, 2010

Dear Friends,

With profound sorrow, I must inform you that Pastor Darlene Grega has passed away. 

Pastor Grega was a beloved member of the Valparaiso University family, and we mourn the loss of someone who cared deeply for the members of this community.  Our sympathy and prayers are with Pastor Grega’s son,
Nathan, her extended family, and her many friends here at Valpo and beyond. 

I invite all members of the campus community who desire to come together for support and to remember Pastor Grega to join me at tonight’s Celebrate! service at 10 p.m. in the Chapel of the Resurrection or at tomorrow’s morning prayer service at 11:15 a.m. in the chapel.  Chapel and counseling services staff will be available at both of these services and offer support to anyone in need during this time of grieving.

Pastor Grega has been a friend to many and generously served our campus community since joining our chapel staff less than two years ago.  In particular, she provided significant counsel and support to women and to the LGBTQ community on our campus and built relationships with our international students to help them feel welcomed here. Pastor Grega provided leadership for the University’s residential ministry and the Fellowship House. She counseled many others.  

As a caring community, I ask each of you to support and care for your fellow students and colleagues as we mourn for Pastor Grega.  I encourage anyone in need of spiritual or emotional support to speak with
Pastor Joseph Cunningham or Pastor James Wetzstein by contacting the chapel office at ext xxxx, or to speak with our Counseling Center staff by calling ext. xxxx.  If you need to speak with someone during non-business hours (5 p.m. to 8 a.m.), you may contact Director of Counseling Services  at (219) 464-xxxx during the next 48 hours. Additional information about Valpo’s counseling services is available online (link omitted.)

Pastor Grega will be remembered for the many lives she touched and the myriad gifts she shared with our community.  We must now care for one another and those loved ones she leaves behind. May God bring comfort
and peace to all who mourn and may God’s boundless grace and thepromise of Easter extend to our beloved sister in Christ Jesus.


Mark A. Heckler

It’s not the first time Valpo has faltered in disseminating information to the student body. When I was a resident assistant at Lankenau Hall, then an all-women’s resident hall, we got to meet racially-motivated violence head-on. The only African American Resident Assistant’s door had been torched. At first the university refused to acknowledge the racist overtones. But after a week of student protests, including a sit-in at the administrative building–Kretzmann Hall–the school really opened a dialog about race relations and hate crimes. So something positive came from that sad and ugly experience.

It seems like Valpo is experiencing these growing pains once again. The students are adults, and it is comforting to know that despite the initial blunder, the school has quickly circled the proverbial wagons and is providing nurturing pastoral and psychological care for its students. The school has established a very visible support network of counselors–starting with the peer levels with contacts in each resident hall and academic department, to resources within the Chapel all the way to the formal office of counseling services. It may not seem like much, but  there are even identified peer counselors for the pre-seminary women who looked up to Grega as a friend and role model.

Pastor Grega will be laid to rest today. Valparaiso has chartered a bus that left in the wee hours of the morning for anyone who wanted to journey to Ohio to pay their final goodbyes. This Sunday April 17, there will be a memorial service in the Chapel of the Resurrection to celebrate her life and accomplishments. I’m not sure if it has ever occured before, but Bishop James Stuck of the ELCA Indiana-Kentucky Synod will preside over the service with univesity professor Dr. Fred Niedner preaching. It is comforting to know that VU is allowing the students to be full participants in the grieving process.

Valparaiso University Professor Walt Wangerin, Jr. wrote an essay in 2005 that many blogs are citing this week called Comfort for Those Who Grieve a Suicide.

Save me, O God,

for the waters have come up to my neck.

The event of a suicide encompasses, I believe, not one, but two separate griefs, each distinct from the other by cause and effect. The first of these, often too brusquely dismissed, caused the suicide.

I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;

I have come into deep waters,

And the flood sweeps over me.

The second grief is that which is caused by the suicide. Moreover, this particular grief is distinct from our more general mournings because it resists–it undermines–our more general comfortings. How do we return to life again when the death seems to have been a willful act of our beloved?–as though the heart had chosen to cut itself out of the body.

 I think Wangerin summed it up best. There are two griefs in play. The first, we may never know the answer to–Why. It is hard to imagine anyone so hopeless than the only way out is for life to end. There are lots of reasons–chronic illness, crippling depression, and stress of life, work, relationships that can put someone over the edge.

Pastor Grega definitely has those stressors as both an ELCA minister and only female to preside in the Chapel of the Resurrection. As reported earlier this year (and reprinted this week) by Pretty Good Lutherans,  Missouri Synod President, Rev. Dr. Gerald Kieschnick had the chutzpah asked Pastor Grega to not play a role in the worship services celebrating VU’s 150th Anniversary because the LCMS does not have an “altar and pulpit fellowship” with the ELCA. Of course this was sandbagged on Rev. Grega only minutes before she was to play an integral role in the worship service in her own church as a Valparaiso University Pastor. Mind you that prior to Rev. Grega’s tenure, the Chapel of the Resurrection has been staffed exclusively by ELCA clergy but the Chapel has never been a Missouri Synod congregation.

Supposedly it had everything to do with her ELCA rostering and nothing to do with her gender. But as we all know, it is very hard to separate gender politics when the LCMS refuses to allow women to serve as rostered clergy while the ELCA has been raising women up to serve proudly for almost forty years.

*insert intense displeasure male privilege and see future discussions regarding this in more detail*

Needless to say I am saddened that the University allowed this to happen. But this is one example of how the weight of the world weighed down on her. In addition to being a role model for every woman–ELCA, LCMS, WELS or other–that dreamed of becoming a rostered pastor, or any woman for that matter that tried to shatter the glass ceiling. She took on the role of spiritual advisor and advocate for the GLBTQ community at Valparaiso that, despite progress, is still a marginalized population.

And I’m not sure if you can partition the griefs into her grief and the university’s grief. They seem intertwined..

But how does a campus move forward after something so tragic. Finals are quickly approaching. Students will once again scatter to the four winds a month from now. It is true Valpo will never be the same, but how can it become stronger as a result of Grega’s passing?

Open dialog is the first step. Suicide is not a dirty word. It is something that needs to be faced head on. Just as in the  example above regarding the RA and racial violence, hopefully this tragedy will get the community speaking. How can we prevent any more loss of life? What are the signs of suicidal behavior.  How can a school move past its grief and move toward healing?

Next the school cannot forget everything good that Grega has given the university. I am hopeful that VU will continue to call an ELCA minister to its roster of University Pastors. It needs that voice in the Chapel of the Resurrection. More over, I am hopeful that VU will call a woman to fill that role.  They need that glass ceiling to remain wide open and not closed once again. They need to give each woman on campus a voice in the Chapel. They need to reach out to the GLBTQ community with a bold leader. They need to give the international students that may not normally have a voice one that will sound loud and clear.

They need to keep Pastor Darlene Grega’s ministry alive so that hopefully there is no more tragic loss of life.