Jeff Kern, a junior mass communication – photography major, was scrolling through Instagram when he learned his friend had passed away. He saw numerous pictures of the person and initially thought it was his birthday. However, after reading a caption, Kern discovered that his friend had died. He struggled with the loss and described the news as “devastating.”
“I can say it’s one of the worst feelings I’ve ever felt,” Kern said.
The number of students seeking counseling due to grief has increased since last year, according to Counseling Services Coordinator Tiffany Bartell.
“It is higher this year because of COVID,” Bartell said. “People have lost a lot, and some people have lost family members due to COVID.”
However, COVID-19-related losses are not the only reason individuals may experience grief. According to Bartell, some other causes of grief may be from the loss of a pet, a lost job opportunity or an atypical beginning to college. In some cases, individuals on campus have lost loved ones due to non-COVID-19-related tragedies and sudden death.
“It can be a reaction to a variety of situations and circumstances,” Bartell said.
Students are not the only ones on campus to experience grief. As reported in a previous Accent article, Vice President for Student Development Dennis Negrón lost his son, Zach, a first-year student at Southern, on Dec. 17, 2020.
Negrón told the Accent in an interview that he received a call from his wife, Jennifer, asking if he knew of Zach’s whereabouts. The couple tried to contact Zach by phone, but he never picked up.
Jennifer decided to drive in search of Zach, and she soon saw a traffic jam on the interstate. She wondered if Zach was involved in the accident, and she got as close to the scene as possible. When she asked if her son had been involved in the crash, she was told to call 911. When she called, the dispatcher said police would come to meet her.
The police later confirmed Zach’s death and, according to Negrón, it was the beginning of a “nightmare.” Negrón said the family is still grieving and some days are easier than others.
“There are good days [and] bad days,” he said, before adding: “Actually, most days are a mixture of good and bad.”
Negrón said grief counseling has helped him cope with his loss.
“That’s probably the best thing we’re doing right now,” he said.
Negrón urges those dealing with grief not to blame God for the loss of a loved one. He said death was not part of God’s plan for this world.
“My faith is strong,” Negrón said. “This was the result of sin, not the result of God.”
In an interview with the Accent, School of Religion Professor Stephen Bauer also said he recently lost his son. Bauer and his wife woke up on Jan. 4 to see 20 missed calls. His daughter-in-law eventually reached Bauer to say that his 35-year-old son, Andrew, had died in his sleep. After hearing the news, Bauer said, he felt numb.
“It’s okay to feel bad,” Bauer said to others grieving. “You’re not going to be on your A-game. It’s okay to need some time. This is wretched — it’s rotten. It’s okay to be angry with God, like Job. As long as you don’t stop trusting.”
Bauer said he finds hope in his son’s faith in God and the promise of resurrection. He has also found comfort through listening ears, especially those of his colleagues. He encourages others to listen to those currently grieving.
“If in doubt, be quiet and cry with them,” he said. “That’s often more effective than words.”
Laura Strothman, senior biology – biomedical major, was just leaving class when her mom called to tell her that her grandfather had passed away.
“I’d never lost a family member prior to this,” Strothman said. “That was a new kind of coping experience I hadn’t had.”
After deciding to attend her grandfather’s funeral, Strothman contacted her professors to let them know her situation. The professors responded by expressing condolences and working with her on adjusted assignment deadlines.
“They were all really understanding,” Strothman said. “… I felt very supported.”
Strothman said the funeral was particularly difficult due to COVID-19. Attendees observed social distancing, which was hard for Strothman because she was unable to physically comfort her family. She was especially concerned about her grandmother.
“I didn’t want to run the risk of getting her sick,” she said.
Despite the COVID-19 restrictions, Strothman was glad she attended the funeral.
“It did give me that closure I think that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t gone,” Strothman said.
Still, Strothman said she didn’t feel completely like herself during the first couple of weeks following her grandfather’s death. While dealing with her grief, Strothman said she found comfort through conversations.
“I think the thing that helped the most was knowing that other people understood what was happening. … Just talking it out,” Strothman said.
Negrón is also thankful for those who have reached out during this difficult time and said not to be afraid to talk to someone experiencing a loss.
“Occasionally, I’ll meet somebody, and I can tell from their eyes that they want to say something, but they don’t know what to say,” he said. “The best thing to say is just, ‘I’m praying for you Dr. Negrón.'”
To best understand and help someone dealing with grief, Bartell encourages researching grief or talking with a counselor. She also suggests being willing to adapt to the griever’s needs. This could mean providing a distraction or sitting in silence.
“I think listening, talking less, being really self-aware of my reactions to other people’s grief can be important,” Bartell said.
If a student is currently struggling with grief, Bartell recommends stopping by the counseling center.
“Having a counselor, or somebody who has done the journey before, to walk with you and normalize how you’re feeling and help you figure out where those emotions are coming from and what to do with them can be helpful,” Bartell said.
Initially, Kern only told family and close friends about his loss.
“I didn’t post anything on my social media,” Kern said. “ I try to be as private as I can about certain things.”
Despite wanting to keep this event private, Kern wanted to do an interview with the Accent to bring awareness to mental health during a time of grief. He said he felt mental health for men was often undiscussed and he wanted to contribute to the conversation.
“Men also go through their own emotional problems,” Kern said. “I struggled last semester.”
Coping for Kern got easier as the semester went on, but it was still difficult. He said he is still struggling with grief and decided to get counseling. So far, he said, his experience has been positive.
“I recently started doing counseling,” Kern said. “… And I needed that.”
Bartell wants to remind students that Counseling Services is there for them regardless of what they may be facing.
“No emotion or feeling or experience is too small to come to counseling…” Bartel said. “We definitely want to be that safety net for students, if they have experienced something really big, like the loss of someone they love or a pet — those things that are so important to us.”