Students share their experiences mourning the death of a parent, yet learn to overcome their tragedies
by kateMagill, ’13 and oliviaMILTNER, ‘13
On Dec. 14, 2012, over two dozen teachers and children died at the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. And just a few weeks before, Barrington Elementary School third grade teacher and UA community member Megan Fedorko died unexpectedly. These events stunned the Upper Arlington community, and forced people to cope in the midst of the holiday season. But for some UAHS students, this was also a reminder of the grief they had already experienced earlier in their lives.
Senior Stu Little thought his father, Brian Little, was invincible. Brian was energetic and hardworking, the first in his family to go to college and the owner of a business. But this all dissolved when Stu was in seventh grade, as his dad lost his battle with cancer, passing away due to a brain tumor.
Five years earlier, Brian was diagnosed with melanoma. According to the National Cancer Institute, melanoma caused the death of just over an estimated 9,000 people in 2012, and is the most deadly form of skin cancer. Brian’s first round of cancer went into remission, but it returned when Stu was 13 and, in three months, had taken away Stu’s father and role model.
Senior Dan Watson went through a similar experience when his mother, Gina Marie Sangermano Watson, died of leukemia when Dan was in seventh grade. After the cancer went into remission twice, Gina passedaway in Nov. 2007.
The realization that their parents would not survive their diseases had a significant impact on both Wats
on and Little. When Watson was told by his mother’s doctor that her cancer would be fatal, he was stunned.
“I was just dumbfounded… I just stared at a wall. It was unbelievable to me, my whole world was crashing down. And it wasn’t the fact that I was trying to hold in my emotions; it’s just there were no words to describe what I was feeling, and there certainly wasn’t an emotion for it,” Watson said.
Another student forced to cope with the loss of a parent due to cancer is senior Gabi Aufdencamp. After learning that her mother had stage four breast cancer, she struggled to come to terms with the impending outcome.
“I was kind of in shock and denial,” Aufdencamp said. “The thought of her dying [when she was initially diagnosed with cancer] was always kind of in the back of my head, but I didn’t want to ‘make it real’ and have to think about what life would be like without her.”
Even after her mom had passed away, Aufdencamp still had difficulties coming to grips with her loss.
“It didn’t really hit me until about a couple monthsafter, around my 18th birthday… I knew it was going to happen, but when it did, it was just surreal. I think I kind of went into ‘survival mode,’ and I
knew I was sad, but I kind of tried to put those feelings behind me and attempt to go on with my life,” Aufdencamp said. “I eventually kind of crashed and burned, and that’s when the reality of what happened really hit me. It’s weird to think that your mom will never be at another one of your birthdays, or cook another Thanksgiving dinner.”
One student who had a different experience losing a parent, but still a similar reaction, is sophomore Mikayla McVey. When she was nine, her father, Keith McVey, was thrown from his motorcycle, knocked out on contact and put on life support.
When McVey and her family learned about the accident, many were emotional, but McVey tried to support her sister and mother.
“My family was crying more than I did, because I felt like I had to be strong. I have a younger sister, and I felt like I didn’t want to be sad in front of my mom,” McVey said.
However, after about a week, the family was told that if Keith survived, he would have the mind of a 12-year-old, and be in a wheelchair. The family, upon this news, decided to take him off of life support based on wishes Keith had previously expressed about any circumstance like this.
“When we finally found out he had passed away, everyone was crying but I wasn’t. I was… in shock. I didn’t really understand it,” McVey said.
The initial shock of realizing a parent would pass away was, for Watson, made more difficult by the recognition of his parent’s vulnerability.
“I wasn’t very worried about it at first because my mom and dad were who I looked up to . . . they were the iron people in my life. They were solid, stable, I knew nothing was going to hurt them,” Watson said. “I wasn’t used to the fact that my parents might not be able to handle [cancer] because at that point in my life my parents were my superheroes, they could handle anything.”
Little was also forced to confront his parent’s mortality.
“It was frightening. You see your dad as this supreme figure, and then knowing that he can be taken from you pretty shortly; it was hard,” Little said.
Despite the difficulties associated with their parent’s passing, for Little and McVey, time was one thing that helped them remember their parents in positive ways. McVey believes that her dad’s sudden and unexpected death was easier to handle than if he had suffered from a prolonged disease like cancer, because she did not have to wonder over the course of months when he was going to pass. For Little, the relatively quick course of his dad’s cancer gave him the opportunity to remember his father as normal and healthy, instead of sick.
“It was hard, but I’m kind of glad it went fast, so I didn’t have to have a lot of those memories being of him sick, but a lot of good memories,” Little said.
Learning to Cope
After the funeral services have ended, coping with the loss of a loved one can be a long and difficult process. For McVey, the coping experience began a few days after the funeral, when she says it truly hit her that her dad was gone.
“I tried to be upbeat and positive during the funeral because they say that it’s a time to remember the life that they lived, not mourn their death,” she said. “But it was a few days after that, when I was talking to my mom about it, and that’s when it finally hit me and I started crying a lot. Because you miss those that you’ve spent your entire life with and then you realize they’re not going to be there anymore.”
After their initial reaction, both Little and Watson said that coping with the death of their parent was a largely introverted experience, as each dealt with many of the emotions that came from the experience on their own. This is a common reaction in teens, according to Dr. Hilda Glazer, the supervising counselor of Village Child and Family Counseling in Columbus, specializes in grief counseling. Glazer said that adults will watch younger children more carefully to identify if they need extra help or support with the situation, but that teens often need to speak up for themselves.
“I think often teens tend to be more introverted, and don’t get enough support. With teens we expect them to let us know [if they need help],” she said.
Glazer also said that the grief process for each individual is unique, and that there is no one strategy to overcome their sadness.
“There really are no steps or stages. It’s a very personal experience, so that everybody’s is different,” she said. “The research shows that there really aren’t five stages [of grief] and that people don’t do anything in the same order. So saying that there’s a predictable staged theory of how things happen doesn’t work.”
However, Glazer said that there are some common actions that are important to take while going through one’s own grief process.
“It’s important to share your story. And it’s important to talk to your friends or people you trust,” she said.
Little says that over time, although his grieving process was largely independent, he has found his own way to cope with the loss by gradually learning to live with the absence of hisfather, rather than having a significant moment of closure.
“I’ve kind of kept it bottled in. I came to terms with it obviously when he died, but I don’t know… it’s not that you forget about it, but I think you just get used to that absence in your life,” Little said. “I never had that stage where I really dealt with it and opened up with therapy or anything like that, but I think that’s become the new status quo, and I’ve just kind of gotten used to it.”
Watson says that dealing with the loss of his mother caused him to be angry much of the time, which he believes could have been lessened had he turned to others for more support.
“I didn’t really go to anyone. I became very introverted, I didn’t really talk to people, [and] I was very angry a lot of the time,” he said. “I didn’t sleep very much. I should’ve talked to somebody about [her death] but it just didn’t occur to me to talk to anyone about it.”
Unlike Little and Watson, Aufdencamp said she used her friends and family as a support system throughout the experience of her mother’s death, and that having them there helped to lessen the burden.
“My best friends were with me the week my mom was in hospice and stayed with me until she passed away. My grandparents and aunts also were at hospice, and stayed in town until a couple days after her funeral service,” Aufdencamp said. “[That week] is kind of a blur to me. But I really am grateful for my family and friends. It would have been a lot harder without having them there to talk to and cry to at any hour of the day.”
Beyond the week of her mother’s passing, Aufdencamp said that leaning on friends and family has strengthened their relationships and brought them closer together. For her, knowing that she can call on those around her for such support in times of tragedy has formed a lasting bond.
“When someone helps you through something like the death of your mother, you have a bond with them for the rest of your life. I am closer to my grandparents, and I talk to my aunts a lot more than before. I know my family wants to emphasis being together more than ever now,” she said.
According to Glazer, group support such as this proves to be very effective in helping with the grief process, especially if the other individuals have gone through similar experiences.
“Support groups are very effective, because people are helping other people who have gone through it. That’s a very positive experience,” she said.
Many times, the loss of a parent creates a void within a family. According to Glazer, while not universal, she has seen children feel responsible to fill the place of the lost loved one.
Little felt this need to be there for his family, saying that he has stepped in for his father in places others in his family would need him.
“He [was] the man of the house, and as the oldest son I kind of have to take on that role. You take on the role of father to your little brothers and then [you] kind of have to take on the role of husband to your mom,” Littlesaid.
Because of this, Little says he has tried to be a stable, reliable person for his family.
“I stay home a lot on the weekends [to] be with my mom, because I think for her, [it’s] really hard… she lost her husband, and then with all of us running around, she’s pretty lonely,” Little said. “So I’m definitely at home a lot more, stay out of trouble, be that good role model… almost like a heightened sense of duty as a son and as a brother, because they kind of depend on that.”
And, although the loss of his father was difficult, Little believes the tragedy has shaped him into a better person.
“I’ve definitely grown, I know I’m much more mature than I can ever imagine being. I’ve had to overcome some things, and… I’m a completely different person now, and I like the person who I am because of it,” Little said.
McVey was also focused on supporting her family throughout the time of her dad’s death. Her younger sister, who was seven at the time of her father’s death, could not fully understand the situation, and her mother was grieving for the loss her husband. Because of this, McVey tried to remain strong for her family, and the experience has given her the ability to work through difficult situations and sympathize with others, often enabling her to give advice to others when needed.
“I can handle really emotional situations a lot better, and I can give insight to other people if they’re going through something really rough,” McVey said. “I actually do know how they feel and it is easier to talk about now.”
Aufdencamp’s loss has also made her more independent.
“I’ve had to go do a lot of things, like the college app process, that I thought she would help me with, alone. I kind of think of it like ‘if I can make it through something as horrific as my mother’s death, I can make it through anything’ and I do think I’m a stronger person now,” Aufdencamp said.
A Changed Outlook
In the months and years following the death of their parent, Little, Watson, Aufdencamp and McVey all said that their outlooks on life have changed; they value life more than before, as they have experienced firsthand how short life can be. For Little, he makes sure to cherish his relationships with others even more.
“You learn to appreciate the relationships you have, because even the little things, looking back on it, those are some of my best memories of [my dad],” he said.
As well as valuing life and its relationships, Little’s loss has also caused him to reevaluate religion’s role in his life.
“I’ve battled back and forth with religion and everything, and I think on the days where I believe in God, it’s good to know that when I do pass away, I’ll be with him again,” Little said. “While I want to value life, if I’m being religious I know that even in death, everything will be great. I don’t fear death.”
In addition, Little has come to a different conclusion regarding the common phrase ‘everything happens for a reason.’
“I almost backtrack, like the reason he died is because of the actions he took that got him skin cancer not that… God made him die for this reason.”
Little also said that his father’s death makes him want to work to leave a positive impact on those around him, something he said his dad was successful at throughout his own life.
“It makes me want to live life to its fullest. My dad was able to do that in his short time here, and he had an impact on a lot of people, and that’s something I want to be able to do,” he said.
Religion has also been a more powerful presence for McVey in the years since her dad’s death. She said that the unending support her fellow church members offered her was especially helpful in the months after his death.
“Everyone in our church is really close and knew him really well, and it was just really nice to be able to surround yourself with people who have such unconditional love for you,” McVey said. “Whenever they had a church service a couple months after that they would always say a prayer for him. [It was] just really nice to be so close to people who were understanding.”
Like Little, McVey also works everyday to value life and the relationships she holds most dear, especially her relationship with her mother. For her, one of the most significant changes in her daily actions since her dad’s death is to always leave on a positive note with her family members.
“I’ve realized that life is precious and it is too short to waste, because at any second, your life can be changed forever. I always make sure if I’m leaving my mom, I tell her I love her, because you never know when the last time you’re going to see her is,” McVey said. “The last time I talked to my dad was over the phone… I wish I could have changed the way that I last communicated with him and ended it more meaningfully. But you can’t go back and change that, so I just value life more.”
Thoughts for Others
Although the experience of losing a parent is a tragic loss—one that changes life forever—Little, Watson, Aufdencamp and McVey believe that moving on is possible, and that when giving advice to others on how to deal with similar situations, they said that while difficult, grieving the loss and learning to successfully move on is not only possible, but necessary.
To do that, Watson said that one of the most important things to remember is that loved ones never truly leave, that they remain a presence in life forever.
“They’re not really gone, they’re still there. They’re still there in your life, they never really disappear,” he said.
For McVey, she said that learning to enjoy life again is important because a parent would not want their child to suffer in their absence.
“When it happens you’re totally devastated and you think that you’ll never forget it, that it’s just going to ruin your life. It may seem impossible, and you may feel bad about moving on, but life does go on, because they wouldn’t want you to mourn their death for the rest of your life,” McVey said. “Moving on even though it’s hard, it is worth it and it makes you feel so much better.”
The idea that parents would not want their children to live in sadness forever is a belief that Aufdencamp shares as well. In addition, she believes that moving on is a gradual process, and it cannot be done with one action.
“Grief really is a healing process. There isn’t just one thing you can do to make your pain go away, you have to work it out, which isn’t easy,” she said.
Aufdencamp also said that while it can be difficult to continue with the daily routines of life, it is necessary, and does get easier with time. Although at times she said it can be irritating to live alongside peers who have never dealt with such losses, she stresses that life will get better.
“It’s hard to go to school, be with other kids who have ‘normal’ lives, and it’s difficult to watch them complain about seemingly trivial things, like not having the right lunch, or getting the wrong drink at Starbucks. But life will get easier,” Aufdencamp said.
Most importantly, Aufdencamp said to cherish the memories of lost loved ones, and to remember these moments when needing a source of comfort.
Although he believes that finding a new status quo in life is difficult, Little said that reaching this state is part of moving on, beyond the tragedy of losing a parent.
“It’ll be alright. It sucks, and there’s no going around it, and it’s not going to be easy, and everything’s not going to be okay like it used to be, but the new okay isn’t too bad.