First year student Sarah Martin was learning about bereavement in one of her nursing school classes, but studying remained far from her mind that Saturday night. She had traveled to Colorado for her first karate convention with her coworkers from Keith Hafner”s Karate School. Surrounded by friends at a banquet dinner, she was thoroughly enjoying herself.
That was when her colleagues called her out of the room.
“They told me I had to call home, that there was a family emergency,” Sarah recalled. “I thought there was someone in the hospital with a broken arm.”
The oldest of six children, Martin shared a room in her parents” house with her two sisters, Amanda and Molly. Born within a three year span and enrolled in consecutive grades in school, the girls shared so much that their parents dubbed them “SAM” an acronym combining the first letter of each of their names.
The family resided in Chelsea, a small town located a few miles west of Ann Arbor. Here the Martins attended St. Mary”s Catholic Church and took karate classes together. Sarah, Amanda and Molly all had achieved the rank of black belt along with their mother, younger sister Katy and younger brother David. The sisters spent countless hours laughing and discussing friends, sports and school together over the years. Their conversations continued by phone once Sarah began attending the University.
But Sarah was involved in a different type of phone conversation in Colorado that Saturday night, Nov. 11, 2000. Across the lines, she heard the news that 17-year-old Amanda had been killed instantly in a car accident on the way home from a football game earlier in the day. Amanda”s dreams of attending Hope College to study business and of later becoming a mother would never come true.
Like Amanda”s death, the loss of a youth frightens family and friends because it is unanticipated. The deaths of students Candy Wei, Shannon Mayes and Byung Soo Kim during the past academic year impacted the campus in a similar manner. These losses can be particularly difficult for students who have never experienced the death of a close friend or relative before. And in instances of sudden losses, people may experience shock and trauma in a way that isn”t associated with the death of someone elderly due to long-term illness or other natural causes.
“If you have a friend who has just had a death in their family, the first thing to think about is whether the death was anticipated or unexpected,” School of Social Work professor Sallie Foley said. “Either way it hurts, but if it was unexpected, the person may not react with a normal grief reaction.”
As a result, those responding to unanticipated losses can experience feelings ranging from anger to numbness and shock.
“I think it”s a way for the body to handle the magnitude of what”s going on,” said Jim Etzkorn, a counseling psychologist at the University”s Counseling and Psychological Services. “It”s just too big to handle.”
In the aftermath of learning about her sister”s death, Sarah said she didn”t experience denial but simply couldn”t absorb what had occurred. Dazed, she found herself on a bereavement flight home from Colorado. A colleague accompanied her on the trip, but she felt utterly alone without her family.
“I was with people who loved me, but not people who loved (Amanda) in the same way I did,” she said.
She felt completely relieved to see her family upon pulling into the driveway of her parents” house. Friends had flown in from as far away as Connecticut and Washington, and her relatives had driven up from Indiana.
“As soon as I got out of the car, there were people to hug and be with,” Sarah said. “We weren”t alone for a week. I couldn”t handle being alone.”
According to interim director of the University”s Counseling and Psychological Services Todd Sevig, death can be particularly difficult for students who are geographically separated from family the way Martin was when she first received the news. Without the direct connection to a personal support network of friends and family, grieving is a much more difficult process.
Those experiencing grief often fear isolation the way Sarah initially did following her sister”s death. In difficult periods like this, friends should try to be available during the individual”s grieving process and encourage the person to talk about it.
“The main thing is that people need someone to listen and be with them,” said Robert Hatcher, the director of the University”s Psychological Clinic. “In terms of actually doing things beyond that, you can show them that you care and spend time with them and do things that remind them that life is fun, like going out, but the core is to remind them that someone is there with them.”
In Sarah”s case, her sister Molly understood her feelings since she was experiencing the same loss. The night before the funeral, the pair went shopping in order to get out of the house for a while. At the mall, they spotted a display of silver necklaces. The design contained three entwined hearts. They purchased three of the necklaces, one to put around Amanda”s neck before her burial and one for each of them to wear every day to remember their trio.
This was not the last display of love for Amanda. Chelsea held three funerals for the victims of the car accident in one week. More than a thousand people turned out to support the Martin family and remember Amanda at her funeral. Friends and professors from the University sent cards and attended the service. In addition, many members of Sarah”s graduating class returned from college to make their presence felt.
The funeral allowed Sarah to experience the outpouring of love for her sister as well as to take advantage of the support her affiliation with the Catholic church provided her.
“My parents immediately drew strength from their relationship with God and our church and the rest of the family followed their example,” Sarah said.
Through their religious meaning and ritual activity, funerals often prove healing for those dealing with a loss. Funerals can help make the loss more real and allow people to say goodbye to a loved one, Sevig said.
The period after the funeral often represents the most difficult time for people who are mourning a loss. At this point, the immediate support network of people who have gathered begins to disassemble, and those who have suffered most from the loss are left alone to start again.
“Two or three weeks down the road, everyone else goes back to their normal life and we”re just starting to deal with our loss,” Sevig said.
Following Amanda”s funeral, Martin spent a couple weeks at home with her family beginning the coping process. But once Thanksgiving break ended, she decided it was time to return to the University and resume her interrupted life.
“I knew exams were starting,” she said. “Molly went back to school, and there was nothing left except going back and starting to live with it.”
Her two-week absence left Martin lagging behind in her courses. Although some of her professors offered flexible due dates and even attended the funeral, she returned to other classes to discover that her classmates were unaware of the reason for her absence. Martin found herself repeating the painful explanation again and again.
“I just wanted people to know why I”d been gone, that I hadn”t been in the Bahamas,” she said.
Martin faced not only the countless explanations but also an increasing load of work as exams approached. She began to struggle under the combination of stress and her continuing grief.
“I remember being in my room and trying to study and wondering why I was doing this, why it mattered,” she said.
Students dealing with bereavement can be frustrated upon their return to school. Professors are aware of the impacts grief can have on a person”s work and try to make allowances for circumstances surrounding a death, Sevig said.
“Everyone is supportive and understands that this does impact students” academic performances,” he said.
Students experiencing grief can seek help at CAPS or through the student services staff member for their college or department in changing their schedule. Sevig said some people ask for extensions on assignments while others drop a class. In extreme circumstances, students may opt to withdraw from school for a semester.
To cope with their emotions in the wake of a death, students can turn to CAPS for individual counseling. CAPS” counselors will sit down with students to discuss their feelings or put them in touch with other resources. The University”s Psychological Clinic offers longer term counseling, and the community offers individual as well as group therapy through organizations such as the Ann Arbor Hospice. Religious organizations also offer support in times of grieving.
In her toughest moments, Martin turned to her friends, family and religion for solace. She ended up failing one class but earned high marks in two other courses. Martin took an incomplete in her last class and has since finished the course work.
During her struggle to keep up in school, Martin simultaneously dealt with the pain caused by the loss of her sister. At college, she felt like the grief was less fresh because she could distance herself from direct reminders of her sister. But when Martin spent time at home, she worked hard to stay strong for her three youngest siblings, even though the gatherings brought back memories of Amanda”s intense love for their family. Small reminders in songs on the radio or photographs easily triggered feelings of grief, but these remembrances of Amanda also kept Martin going.
“I like to be reminded of her every day,” she said. “I”m afraid of forgetting her voice or the faces she”d make.”
Martin takes comfort in her memories of her sister. In particular, she finds some resolution by recalling their last conversation on the phone a week before Amanda”s death.
“I said “I love you,”” Martin said. “I remember being done with the conversation and thinking it was weird to have to say that to my sister. I said “I love you,” and then I laughed. Then she said “I love you, too.” It helps to know that.”
Although Martin misses her sister, she realizes that Amanda will always be a significant part of her life. She”s continuing to work through her grief while going on with her life.
“I want people to ask me about Amanda and how I”m doing, but not 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Martin said. “I want them to ask about me, and nursing and karate. And to laugh. It”s OK to laugh.”