Live, love and learn: students cope with loss

Kate Bigam

Friends remember lost loved ones

Last winter, sophomore economics major Jason Mancini wrote on his girlfriend Tiffany Tilenni’s Facebook wall daily. He signed his posts “Ti amo, mia principessa,” Italian for “I love you, my princess.”

They were heartfelt posts Tilenni would never read. On Dec. 30, Mancini’s 19-year-old girlfriend died when the driver of the car she was a passenger in ran a flashing red light and hit an oncoming vehicle.

“It was my way of getting stuff out of my head,” said Mancini, now a junior, about his Facebook posts. “Things I kept inside the whole day – my release, so I could fall asleep at night.”

According to the National Center for Health Statistics’ preliminary data, about 33,000 young adults aged 15 to 24 died in 2004, and so far this semester, five Kent State students have died. Even with the overall sum of college-aged students’ deaths on the decline, down nearly 500 from 2003, dealing with those deaths on an individual basis rarely gets any easier for those students left behind.

‘Just-world hypothesis’

Michael Moore, assistant director of Kent State’s Psychological Clinic, said the death of a friend or classmate differs greatly from the loss of an adult.

“Typically with the death of a grandparent or an older adult, the sense is they’ve kind of lived a fuller life than there is if a friend or a young person dies,” Moore said.

Students’ deaths defy what Moore called the “just-world hypothesis,” the idea that the world is a good, fair place. This idea is especially challenged when deaths occur suddenly, such as in accidents or drug-related incidents.

Mancini, a soft-spoken guy with friendly eyes and brown curls, smiled recalling Tilenni.

The couple met at a party before the Fall 2004 semester and began dating immediately, he said. Mancini described his girlfriend as “someone who loved life and knew how to live it.” Tilenni, a business administration major, enjoyed playing sports and going out; she valued her friends and family above all else.

The night of the crash, Tilenni went dancing at Posh Nite Club in downtown Akron with friends.

“I told her to be careful, be safe,” said Mancini, who spoke to her before she went out. “When I hung up with her on the phone, I just had a feeling like something bad was going to happen.”

The next day, his boss at Rocco’s Pizza heard on the radio that a Tallmadge woman had died in a car accident. Mancini’s chilling suspicion that his girlfriend might be the victim was confirmed later that day when friends stopped by his house to break the news. Mancini broke down into uncontrollable tears, stunned by the abrupt loss.

The aftermath: “just a blur”

Kent resident Zach Dunlap’s death wasn’t as sudden as Tilenni’s, but his good friend Leah Hawksley said that for her it was just as unexpected.

Dunlap, a 21-year-old student at Columbus State Community College and a brother of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, died March 13 from ulcerative colitis, a bowel disease.

Hawksley, who became friends with Dunlap while they were students at Kent’s Theodore Roosevelt High School, was exercising at Fitworks gym when a friend called to tell her of Dunlap’s death.

“It was as if a part of me was ripped out of me,” said Hawksley, junior legal assisting major. “I couldn’t function, couldn’t think, couldn’t move. It was a moment that I never thought would happen. In the back of my mind, I knew he was going to get better.”

Hawksley had taken a semester off school at the time of Dunlap’s death, a move she said turned out to be a blessing. Describing her state of mind following his death as “an emotionless bubble,” she said she was so unmotivated she might have flunked out of school. Instead, she threw herself into her job at Tommy Hilfiger and her newfound friendship with Dunlap’s mother, Aimee. Talking to her, Hawksley said, helped ease both of their pain.

“Surrounding yourself with positive people that love you is one of the best ways to deal with the situation,” she said.

Moore said Hawksley chose one of the best ways to deal with a friends’ death — talking to others who knew her friend.

Mancini, too, found solace in Tilenni’s friends and said telling stories about her keeps her memory alive. Although his friends were originally hesitant to discuss his girlfriend’s death, Mancini encouraged others to talk about her.

“I told them, ‘If you need to get something out, don’t worry, because odds are, I do too,'” he said.

ife goes on

Despite the pain of their friends’ deaths, both students emphasized the lessons they’ve learned. Mancini said he has found new inspiration to face his fears.

“It’s true, time does heal, but there’s always going to be that part of me that wishes this hadn’t ever happened,” he said. “I’ve learned to live each day to the fullest. It’s kind of cheesy, but it’s so true.”

Calling the death of her best friend one of the hardest situations she has ever dealt with, Hawksley said she revels in memories of Dunlap, who helped her pick out the car she drives today and sent her goofy text messages to cheer her up on bad days.

“Memories last a lifetime,” Hawksley said. “And now, that’s all we have to remember this great guy that touched my life and my heart.”

Contact enterprise reporter Kate Bigam at [email protected].