Dealing With Loss

Story by: Matt Spaulding; Video by: Marc Kennedy & Kasey Long; Website Design: Wyatt Nolen

Talking through Tragedy

Student’s story shows the therapeutic effects of opening up

Date: Nov. 19, 2014

Early in the morning just before leaving for high school, Emily Stricklen heard her mother answer a call that would change her life.

It was about her father.

James Stricklen had collapsed in front of his car at a police training course in Corbin, Kentucky — three hours away from their home in Maysville.

Emily and her younger brother, Andrew, made it through a few hours of their school day before their aunt pulled them from school.

Emily got a call from her mother upon arriving at her aunt’s home.

James Stricklen had a blood clot in his leg that traveled to his lungs.

He died of a pulmonary embolism.

Emily is just one of the 22 percent to 33 percent of college students who have lost a family member or close friend within the last year, according to The Students of Ailing Mothers and Fathers.

Coping with the loss of a loved one can be an ongoing process that persists for long periods of time. Refusing to confront issues left by the death of a loved can lead to you feeling numb persistently, having a difficult time with daily activities, and possibly thoughts of suicide, said Lisa Barresi, the associate director for counseling services on campus.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve, said Mary McCutchen, volunteer coordinator for Fernside, a grief support center for children and affiliate of hospice of Cincinnati. However, there are steps you can make to ensure a healthier journey.

Even though Emily experienced the loss of her father three years ago, she said it is something that she continues to deal with — something that will never fully go away.

“I bottled everything up after Dad,” Stricklen said. “I tried to act like I was fine, but I wasn’t and it caught up with me eventually.”

Stricklen, a junior integrated studies major, had a hard time opening up about her loss. She had to visit a number of different counselors because she didn’t really open up to the first.

“I didn’t want to be there and I didn’t think I needed to be there, but by the second time I was in college and I actually started going to counseling at health services,” Stricklen said.

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You are not alone

Lisa Barressi in her office at the counseling department. Photo by Kody Kahle.

It wasn’t until two years after the death of her father that Stricklen began attending counseling services at NKU.

However, once she did start the classes, she found them extremely helpful because she was not forced to say anything or to “be strong.”

Barresi said students visit regularly for issues surrounding loss.

These are common issues that bring people to therapy, she said.

“When folks come in because of a death, I think they’re generally wanting to process that. To talk about it,” Barresi said.

According to the 2009 census, there were 18.4 million students enrolled in American colleges. The Students of Ailing Mothers and Fathers report states that out of those numbers there are more than 4.5 million college students who are grieving.

Unique to young adults

Setting up support group meetings is another option for young adults dealing with loss. However, both the group meetings and regularly attending counseling sessions can be difficult, specifically for young adults.

“Young adults are all very busy in their lives and they’re not busy in the same way,” McCutchen said. “They have part-time jobs, full-time jobs. If they’re college students they’re going to class. It can just be very difficult for them to attend meetings on a regular basis.”

Parents often call out of concern for their son or daughter, said McCutchen. However, when you speak to the son or daughter a gap often develops, she added. Parents are not going to lead their sons and daughters to meetings the same way they may have in high school or younger.

“You never know if it’s the parent thinking they need [help] or if the young adult is thinking that ‘No, I’m doing okay,’” McCutchen said.

Similar reactions

There is a commonality amongst those grieving at all ages, especially as an adult or young adult said Barressi. However, a person’s relationship with the deceased can obviously have different impacts.

“The death of friends their own age is the big eye opener from my perspective. It’s like ‘this could happen,’” said James Ellis, bereavement care coordinator at Saint Elizabeth and professor of HSR 314 (Death, Dying and Grief) at NKU.

James Ellis

Death Chat creates tailor-made support for students, young adults

On Nov. 24 in the Student Union’s lower level, James Ellis will host his group’s third Death Chat. This is an informal and less structured environment to give young adults a chance to talk about death and emotions they may be struggling with relating to it according to Ellis.f

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Ellis said in his discussions with young adults they tend to mention that college is a time where they are supposed to be taking charge of their life. When a loved one dies it challenges that.

“How do I stand on my own and get through this grief because it isn’t normal?” Ellis said. “Seeking help would challenge that ‘standing on my own thing.’ It means I need help. It means I’m weak, which it doesn’t, but that’s the misconception.”

Ellis added that loss, especially that of a parent, is hard because it changes students’ preconceived ideals about their future lives.

“Parent loss is really a core shaker because parents are supposed to live forever,” Ellis said.

Barressi agrees and said college-aged adults are still developing and figuring out their identity.

McCutchen said young adults can often compare themselves to their parents or guardians in order to help establish the person they want to become. When that opportunity is lost they can struggle setting up relationships in the future. Refusing to deal with issues surrounding loss can have long lasting effects, according to Barressi. It can get in the way of completing your daily routine and even begin to disrupt your relationships. You may begin to have a preoccupation with the deceased that doesn’t subside.

Extreme anger or bitterness might persist and you could potentially begin to see life as empty or meaningless. Barresi added that these thoughts can often lead to one becoming suicidal.

No one way to recover

“People can think that there’s this one way that you’re supposed to grieve and the reality is that no two people react exactly alike, “ Barressi said. “There are a variety of feelings that people feel and that’s actually pretty normal.”

Shock, numbness and a sense of disbelief can be the most immediate and common response to a death, according to Barressi.

Stricklen had that reaction after suffering another loss, this time her best friend Brooklyn in January.

“I just kind of was in shock. I never thought something like this would have happened to her and it was so sudden,” Stricklen said.

Stricklen put together pictures of her group of friends the day before the funeral so that Brooklyn’s family didn’t have to worry about it. This was an act that helped her immediately.

“We made posters and stuff with pictures of all of us since we were five-years-old,” Stricklen said.

Brooks Photo

How my life changed in 10 months

I will never forget the fullness of the church at my father’s funeral. Or at my grandfather’s. Or even at my little brother’s. I will never forget the stories of their lives—the stories of how they impacted so many other people’s lives. I won’t forget my father’s co-workers telling me what an inspiration he was for them.

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After the loss of a loved one some people can go into to-do mode, according to Barressi. They take on the work of getting through what they need to and afterwards give themselves permission to grieve or cry.

McCutchen said people who lose loved ones even question if they are weird because they have certain thoughts or feelings — this is where group therapy can be helpful. At those meetings, McCutchen said you can hear others talk about similar experiences you might be going through.

Indications that someone is struggling with grief and should consider counseling would be to first determine if you are having a hard time performing daily activities. Also, if you are feeling numb or disconnected from others. Another sign would be if you have been struggling with trust since the loss or blaming yourself. Finally, if you are beginning to feel that life isn’t worth living.

All of those situations and feelings, according to the professionals, can be aided in some way by the counseling — by simply talking to other people about your experience.

“It’s a cliché,” Stricklen said. “But talking really helped.”

Group vs. individual support options: Who should I talk to?

“I think for some people a group can be more exposing, but the benefits of a group can be that you cannot feel as alone,” Barressi said. “It’s an opportunity to get support, but also to give it too.”

In a support group there can be people in various stages of their grief, Barressi added. Longer term members can see how far they’ve come by hearing details of other members experiences. Those struggling can see how others got through the grief.

“Also, I think groups help give permission to people to grieve because they see other people are and that it’s a natural process,” Barressi said.

McCutchen said that groups can be great for those who tend to be quiet. Usually the first rule of a group is that you don’t have to talk. For those who have a hard time talking about their feelings and opening up this could relax them and at some point they can feel comfortable enough to share their experiences, she explained.

However, Barressi noted that some people may not be ready for this yet in their process and should then consider individual counseling. A lot of people want to first be able to process their grief in a one-on-one, more private setting, Barressi commented.

Emily and her father playing together. Photo provided by Emily Stricklen.

“A counselor is someone who is like outside of your life. So it can be this third party objective person and not have any investment in a way like a friend or family member might have,” she said.

Having an objective listener is probably the most common reason why students have said they enjoy coming to counseling, according to Barressi.

Talking to a family member about another deceased family member can be difficult.

“Friends and family can be very supportive,” McCutchen said. “They’re great listeners, but sometimes it’s not enough. Especially if you’re seeing things happen over and over again and you’re stuck in your grief.”

A counselor will first help the person accept the reality and work them through the related emotions, whether it’s anger, guilt, sadness or anxiety, to help normalize what they are experiencing.

“The later stages of grief tend to be when someone is able to begin to incorporate the deceased person in their life in new ways,” Barressi said.

This doesn’t mean that you’re not sad anymore, but you are willing to reconnect with positive memories of the deceased and take them to new aspects of your life.

Stricklen feels the biggest problem she had dealing with the death of her father led her to the best advice she can share with anyone struggling through a similar situation.

“Don’t be afraid to need help because that doesn’t mean that you’re weak,” she said. “If anything going to people for help makes you stronger.”

If you know anyone struggling with the loss of a loved

...or you are struggling below is a list of options for help on and off campus. There is traditional counseling in NKU’s counseling department and traditional support groups at Fernside. James Ellis has an informal support group that meets in the Student Union.

NKU currently does not have a support group on campus, but you can see counselors individually to talk. Call (859) 572-5650 or visit UC 440. For emergencies call (859) 572-7777.