Holes in our hearts

When a parent dies, students struggle to cope

while friends look for ways to provide support

“It felt like getting stabbed in the side. Or breaking an arm that never quite heals.” This is how one Minnehaha student, who wished to remain anonymous described the feeling of losing a parent.

Most high school students are planning which AP classes to take next year or worrying about bringing up their chemistry grade, not thinking about their parents passing away.

It seems rare to have to deal with something like that at such a young age, but in reality one in seven people before that age of 20, will have lost a parent.

“It’s kind of like a hole in your heart,” said freshman Carrie Sayre, who lost her father in 2010. “I miss my dad every day. I don’t cry all the time now, but there are certain places or times when it just hits you.”

An alabaster sculpture of a mourner from the tomb of the Duke of Burgundy, 15th century. Image © FRAME 2010. Photography by Jared Bendis and François Jay

After a peer’s parent dies, it can be difficult to know how to act around them.

“It was odd-I felt like people were talking to me, but not to me, almost at me,” said junior Lili Cameron Zenobian, who lost her father last year. “[It was] like they had prepared and practiced everything they were going to say. They were careful.”

She’s not alone.

“The funny thing was that people who never talked to me before would just come up and talk to me and hug me like we had always been best friends,” said the anonymous student. “I wanted people to treat me not based on what had happened to me, but who I was.”

Coping with the loss of anyone is difficult, but losing a parent is arguably one of the most jarring experiences to wade through. Isolation is often a common reaction, but is strongly discouraged; it can be harmful to both physical and mental health. By keeping yourself busy, you’re actually saving yourself.

“I used anything as a distraction,” said the anonymous student. “For example, sports or studying all of the time. Also I always surrounded myself with people so that I never really had to be alone because if I was alone, I started to think about how much I missed [my parent].”

Grieving, which consists of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, is a natural process of coming to terms with a loss. It’s important to know the stages, but don’t rely on them. Not everyone copes in the same manner.

“In our culture, we seek the quick fix for all of our ailments,” said the Rev. Dan Bergstrom, a sacred studies teacher and chaplain at Minnehaha. “When it comes to grief, there is no short cut. There are stages of grief and each person must journey through the stages of grief. Some take longer than others. There is no right timetable.”

Zenobian describes the grieving process as a “journey of coping.”

“It switches everyday,” she said. “Sometimes I’m angry at myself and people around me. How can they be so happy when I’m stuck in this dark place? Sometimes I can’t believe it, and it will rush over me at the most random times.”

The process of coming to terms with what is happening can be a confusing time, calling everything into question, including faith.

“At first I was really angry at God,” said Sayre. “Then a month after [my dad died], I felt really close to [God] and relied on Him and His strength to help me get through it.”

Faith can also help a friend of someone who’s lost someone close to them.

“[The] bottom line is that we want to love those who are hurting from grief,” said Bergstrom. “If we can love those who are hurting and bring a non-anxious presence as we walk beside them, then we are being Christ’s presence in their lives.”

Simply being available to listen when they want to talk can be the most helpful thing you can do. The most important thing isn’t having an answer for everything, it’s being there to help them work through it.

“One thing that my dad said that helps me get through this is just to stick with it,” said the anonymous student. “Life sucks for everyone at certain times, but the only way to really be happy in life is to feel extremely sad at some time also.”

The most important thing you can do for a peer who’s suffered a loss is to treat them like a normal person.

If you weren’t friends before, don’t try to become their best friend. Smile at them in the hallway, sure, but don’t draw attention to the situation. If you are friends, talk to them, but don’t pressure them to say anything. Simply be available.

“Sometimes all it takes is a friends presence,” said Bergstrom. “I’ll never forget my father’s friend who would come and sit with him while he was dying. He didn’t say much, but he didn’t have to. Just his presence was enough to give my father comfort.”

And finally, always remember that behind the grief is a person.

“I didn’t want to be defined by it,” said Sayre. “I didn’t want to be the girl who had her dad die.”

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About Rachel Bartz

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