Loss is a strange feeling. To lose someone you know is to feel a fragment of your existence dissipate into nothingness.
The size of that fragment, however, is dependent upon many factors. How close were you? When was the last time you spoke? Did you leave off on good terms? These questions, among copious other thoughts, plague the minds of those who find themselves facing tragedy.
I can’t say these past few months have been easy. From witnessing the death of Josh Mileto at my high school’s football practice, to losing my Nana, facing the death of Nick Moya, and working through the tragic passing of my freshman resident Will Steinberg, it’s been a harrowing year. Each loss left a different impact on my psyche, but I can’t even fathom how catastrophic these losses were for those closest to them. Josh’s brother; Nick’s parents; my mother; Will’s roommate. Their experiences of loss were different than my own, but I hope this reflection can ease the pain just a little.
For those of us who have experienced a loss, I’d like to start by saying that I am truly, sincerely sorry. Whether the missing piece of you is a small chip or a large chunk, you are feeling less than whole. Quite frankly, you’ll never get that piece back; it’s impossible to replace a part of your life that was so specific and unique. However, returning to normalcy as a less–than–whole person is in your power. It’s not about filling the emptiness. Rather, it’s about welcoming the extra space, becoming accustomed to the absence, and getting used to the new status quo.
I’d be lying if I said this was easy. It’d be a blatant falsehood if I said this will happen quickly for everyone. But I’m being completely honest when I say that it will be doable and that it will take less time than you expect.
Thinking back to the start of this school year, I was hoping for some positive changes. I had regained confidence that Penn would be a beast I could conquer. That confidence was unfaltering until August 11th when a visit to my high school football practice turned into a failed attempt to save the life of a 16–year–old boy. Josh Mileto came to practice expecting to “get better every day” with his teammates, but left without the life he so fully lived. It’s one thing to see death in a hospital; it’s completely different to see lifeless eyes in a grass field at your high school.
I returned to Penn the next day, still trying to wrap my head around what I had just gone through, but focused on the impending week of RA training.
As we learned about helping our residents to deal with the stresses of friends, family, and classes, I felt like a hypocrite. I was learning to teach others the coping tactics that I couldn’t master myself. I know quite well that I bundle things up inside, letting them slip only occasionally in the form of poems or emotionally charged, less–than–sober conversations. Yet, I knew that this was the same response I was taught to deter other students from exhibiting. To effectively teach others what I couldn’t do myself would be a challenge, but I know that I’m not alone in reflecting on this duality.
I decorated the halls and planned activities for the imminent move–in period, but an unexpected phone call from my mother signaled that loss could not be so easily escaped. After suffering from health complications for years, my grandma—my Nana—had passed away. Her wake would be that Wednesday, the same day that I was supposed to welcome my excited, energetic, and nervous freshmen to the next chapter of their lives.
Back on campus, it was time to concentrate on the semester ahead—football, classes, RA–ship, clubs, and everything else. But hearing about the passing of Nick Moya was a blow that I felt too numbed to fully process. I regret to say that I was not close with Nick; as President of Kite and Key, I would have loved to intimately know every one of our incredible members, but I missed out on the chance to truly know Nick. I was distanced, but I felt an obligation to feel closer. The heavy weight of suicide seems distant until it seeps into your network of friends.
The pain I saw at Nick’s viewing was overwhelming; no person in that room was whole, but some felt like mere fractions of who they were before.
A stressful semester ensued, but so did a stretch of time free from loss. A stretch that perished with a plane crash once I heard about Will Steinberg, a boy whose wide smile and lengthy gait could not be forgotten.
How do I tell my kids that their hall—mate was gone?
I entered into a whirlwind of texts, calls, and emails to ensure that my residents were informed, comforted, and surrounded by people they loved as they dealt with the news. Being an RA had brought out this paternal instinct to wish I could protect each of my residents from this pain. If walking past Will’s room gave me chills when I came back, how would his closest friends feel? The university—wide ceremony, our hall—wide event, and the intermittent conversations I had throughout all of this made the news sink in deeper and deeper. What felt so surreal over break, in the comfort of our own homes, was now a harsh component of reality; setting foot on campus let that piece of us be taken.
Josh’s death was a swift stab; my Nana’s passing was a slow cut; Nick’s death was a blunt impact; Will’s passing was an explosive force. Each loss brought on its own reflections, its own visceral reactions. But each loss was an opportunity for growth—a chance to revalue this gift of life and to honor the missing pieces we now live without.
It’s hard to see the joys in life in light of loss, but noting how you respond to it, being open with the people you care about, and recognizing that it’s “okay” to feel “not okay” are just a few steps you can take towards being comfortable with this absence. The losses don’t get easier to handle, but our responses do get easier to understand—even when they seem inexplicable.
By the time we die, we’ll all face a ton of loss. We’ll be missing fragments from all over our souls, but if we learn to honor this empty space and breathe all over again, we’ll still have smiles on our faces. Smiles to hold on to like Will’s, Josh’s, Nick’s, and my nana’s.