Students cope with family deaths

Yolanda Turner, 21, lost her father on Jan. 20, 2009-the day Barack Obama became president.  Her sister called around 5:30 a.m. and told her that their father died of pelvic cancer.

Turner’s father started with prostate cancer that led to pelvic cancer.  He lived with cancer for six years.

“I went ballistic,” she said. “I lost my mind and was screaming and hollering.  I did not want to believe it so I called my mom for her to tell me it wasn’t true.  She didn’t, and that’s when I knew it was real.”

College students have enough to deal with including tests, research papers, projects and the overall pressure of doing well.  Imagine going through all of the above without a personal support system. Imagine your collegiate career without the one who matters most: your parental figure.

The pain Turner endured after losing her father almost cost her college education.

“I didn’t come back after I went home for the funeral,” Turner said.  “I left in January and didn’t come back until the end of the semester. I dropped all of my classes and was seriously thinking about not coming back, but then I told myself that I had to come back, for him.”

Brandon Davis, 21, lost the one man he considered a father.  Ronald Jones was 42 when he died due to complications after heart surgery, and although he was affectionately known as “Uncle Ronnie,” he meant a lot more to Davis.

“I stayed with him most of my life and he was definitely a father figure for me,” said the senior economics student from Detroit.  “He mentored me.  I saw my dad a few times but the fact that my uncle was there on a daily basis only meant that was the father for me.”
According to Davis, Jones was a very sickly man.  He was often in and out of hospitals because of his diabetes and other health problems.

During his freshman year in college, and hundreds of miles away from home, Davis was eating dinner at the cafeteria at Florida A&M when his brother called with the news that Jones was in the hospital and in a coma.

Davis said that Jones went into the hospital for heart surgery and afterward, he was prepped and set up for recovery in a rehabilitation center.  He was in rehab for two days before dying.  Davis said the hospital and doctors at Henry Ford hospital in Detroit released his uncle before his heart was completely healed.  His heart was not strong enough to withstand the treatment in recovery and he died because of an overdose of medicine.

Joanne Green, the clinical education coordinator at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, said there are special precautions that are taken after a patient has had heart surgery.

“Usually, if it’s open heart surgery, they go to the Intensive Care Unit and are monitored,” Green said. “The patients are walked and are watched to make sure the heart rate is OK. They take pills to help control the pain. They are sent home usually after about a week to 10 days and then encouraged for a follow up visit with their physician.”

She said there isn’t one specific way to determine what exactly went wrong but there are a number of possibilities, beginning with his diabetes.  She said if Jones was sent to rehab afterward, he wasn’t progressing like he should have been.

Davis’s father figure died one week after the call from his brother. He flew home to Detroit immediately to pay respect and be with family.

“Uncle Ronnie was really, really important to my family,” Davis said. “He would take my cousins and I fishing or bowling. He was always around, working in my mom’s daycare. He never had any kids of his own, and he didn’t really need to. He had us.”

Allison Lockard, a counselor at FAMU’s Sunshine Manor, said it’s imperative for students to express their feelings after the loss of a loved one.

“When you bury things, it always comes back up at some point,” Lockard said. “Sometimes we bury things or act like it didn’t happen or that it doesn’t bother us, and we do it for a long period of time and then we start to see it affecting us because we didn’t address the grief right on.”

Lockard said that dealing with death and pain is something that will always affect us, but it’s important to release emotions instead of holding them inside.

She thinks it’s important for students to talk about it and grieve, but in a way that works best for them.

“How we grieve and how we address death is different for everyone,” Lockard said. “There is no 1-5 step process to do and then you’ll be fine. It’s important to talk about it, but only when you’re ready. A lot of times when we are grieving, we go to our friends for support because we know them best, but after a while, when that kind of support kind of goes back to their daily lives, that’s when the counselor steps in.”

There are several different methods for a student to grieve. It’s important to know that each person goes through this phase.

Lockard advises students to remember the good times and celebrate their lives, as opposed to being in denial.

She said doing things in memory of that lost parent is always healthy. It helps with acceptance.

“If that person was a good cook, you can make their favorite dish and smile or little things like that,” she said. “Or maybe they were really funny, so you think of their favorite jokes and smile or laugh. These little things help remember them in a good way.”

She also said that some students aren’t open about crying or expressing themselves but advises students to cry during the process of grieving. Lockard said at Sunshine Manor they want students to be able to cry and let their emotions flow. They want students to think about the good times, which will help the process.

According to Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D, the grieving process reshapes the inner world after a loss. It involves a set of emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physical reactions that can vary depending upon the individual and the nature of the loss.

Perry, who is a recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis, said there are two central challenges for a person to overcome when understanding death. The first aspect is to process the event and accept the fact that it has happened. The second aspect involves coping with the loss and learning to live without that loved one.

Perry said people have different styles and ways to adapt and understand death and the process of coping with the loss varies from person to person.

As listed on, the grieving process may include denial, anger and irritability, fear, confusion, difficulty sleeping and changes in appetite.

Ways to cope vary, but it’s imperative for those affected by the loss of a parent to release emotions and heal healthfully.

Turner copes with the loss of her father by constantly talking about it with friends and family. She has close friends who have also lost a family member so she relates to these people easily.

“One of my God-sisters lost her mother in ninth grade and my other lost her father two years ago…we all have that connection and we try to stay together and keep each other up,” Turner said.

Also with the help of family and friends, Davis was able to take the time and think of why this happened.

“What helped me is that I was able to put everything in perspective,” Davis said. “We miss him of course, but I think I’ve moved on from it.  You never know when it’s your time to go, so you have to live your life to the fullest every day. That’s something I can honestly say my uncle did.”

Davis’s religion and spiritual beliefs helps him overcome his loss.

“The Lord has a plan for everybody,” he said. “That was his time. You just have to continue your life and put everything into perspective and understand why it happened.”

Students can stop by the Sunshine Manor on campus for help and ways to cope and can also visit for other places to visit.