Coping with loss away from home

Rachel Abbey

A grandparent’s death can be hard to handle

Many students find it hard to cope with the loss of a grandparent because it’s generally their first loss of a loved one. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY ALLIEY BENDER

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

Sophomore theater major JaQuita Johnson spent last summer in Kent, far from her family and home in Louisiana. One day, her mother called and said her grandmother, Annie Mae, was sick and needed surgery. Johnson didn’t think anything was seriously wrong.

About a week before classes started for the fall, Johnson went home to visit. Her mom met her at the airport and broke down in tears. She hadn’t wanted to tell Johnson how bad her grandmother was when she was alone in Kent, so far from her family.

“I was in shock,” Johnson said. “She was doing so bad. My mom had told me she was doing OK.”

Johnson’s grandmother died before school started again.

Loss can be especially hard for college students, said Jason Miller, director of the Counseling and Human Development Center. Most are living on their own for the first time, and they may feel torn between wanting to go home to be with their families and staying at school with their new friends and obligations, such as classes and jobs. For many students, this is their first loss.

As students try to balance these emotions, the grief may carry over as stress, affecting other areas of their lives, such as their abilities to sleep and concentrate, Miller said.

“It can just manifest itself in a variety of ways,” he said. “Sometimes it just gets out of hand, and they don’t know what to do about it because they haven’t done it.”

When sophomore art history major Mandie Guggenbiller’s grandfather, Leo, died last October, she tried to be around family or friends, rather than spend time alone. She said she went home a lot, which she rarely did before he died, and went out when she stayed in Kent.

“You don’t really want to think about things like that,” she said about her grandfather’s death.

The girl who lived next door became a fast friend to Guggenbiller.

Relying on friends is a good way for students to deal with grief, Miller said. However, they should also make sure to face their loss; if they don’t, it will only put off the inevitable.

“If people talk about it and deal with their needs, they’ll be OK,” he said. “It’s the people who don’t talk about it and address their needs that have a problem.”

Johnson said sometimes her grandmother’s death is hard to believe, but she has to face it. Johnson had been very close to Mame (her pet name for her mom’s mother).

“It just doesn’t seem real,” Johnson said. The distance from Louisiana to Ohio made Johnson already feel separated from her grandmother, which made it hard to accept she was actually gone.

“Sometimes I still want to pick up the phone and call,” she said.

“I still think about it every day,” she said. “I just have to put it aside and think it was the best thing for her.”

Her grandmother was almost like a second mom, Johnson said, who provided financially for her and paid attention no matter how crazy she acted.

“I was over there every day,” she said. “Before school, I’d go over there and catch the bus there. I’d go there after school. She was my baby sitter.”

Johnson said she is a spiritual person who believes everything happens for a reason, but it’s hard to keep telling herself that when she misses Mame.

“You’re going to be sad because you miss that person,” Johnson said. “But it’s a celebration because they’re in a better place.”

Losing someone close is still shocking, Johnson said.

“Sometimes, it’s so unreal,” she said. “You see other people. You feel for them, but you never think you’ll be in that situation.”

Everyone will experience loss, Miller said. When students find themselves worried, with their minds racing, they should talk to someone – family, friends or a counselor – because everyone has or will experience it, he said.

Sophomore nursing major Diondra Penland had lost others close to her before, so she was kind of prepared when she lost her grandfather, Wash Hunter, this December.

“He had been sick for so long,” she said.

She had spent time with him during the summer, taking him to his many doctor’s appointments. He always teased her and told her to quit school, that he would pay her to drive him around.

“My grandfather was so upbeat,” Penland said.

At his funeral, she said her family was able to laugh as well as cry, remembering his life. They told stories, such as when he brought out a gun and started showing off tricks he had learned during World War II, flipping and spinning the gun, as her cousins ducked and hid.

“We were in there laughing,” Penland said. “It was nice. I think that’s how he would have wanted it.”

Penland said she is still reminded of her grandfather whenever she visits her grandmother.

“He would call my grandmother every five, 10 minutes because he needed something. It’s so weird going over there now and not hearing him.

“It’s just weird. I’m still trying to get used to it.”

Contact administration reporter Rachel Abbey at [email protected].