It was a Friday when Lauren Hunter got the call. After leaving work and a last minute lunch at New Deck, the College junior had one hand on the door to her off–campus house when her phone call with her best friend from home was interrupted by a call from her mom.
“My mom spoke one syllable, and I could hear she was crying,” Lauren remembers of that October afternoon last fall. “I started screaming and crying. There was no one in my house, and there’s usually eleven people in my house. I just started hysterically crying. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t move.”
After her dad was diagnosed with MLS leukemia, Lauren and her mother developed an understanding where she would call her and tell her when she needed to come home.
The hours that followed would lead Lauren back to New Jersey, to her father’s hospital bedside.
His diagnosis came during Lauren’s sophomore year at Penn, after years of battling lymphoma and prostate cancer. That Friday, after he couldn’t make it down the stairs, he’d been rushed to the hospital.
After spending the night in the hospital, her dad took a turn for the worse. The doctors told the room full of family members he would not last the next 24 hours.
“All of a sudden, all of a sudden I was just like, I need to get a photo with him before he starts losing his shit,” Lauren says, the memory lighting up her face. “And that’s the photo I posted on Facebook. I’m so happy I got that photo.”
That photo informed the friends Lauren had left at Penn two days prior of her new reality: on October 25th, 2014, her father passed away.
In the past year, grief and tragedy have crossed Penn’s campus in staggering ways. Penn students have mourned and remembered classmates, demanded change and seen our administration attempt to respond to mental health issues.
Yet, chances are that a girl in your psych recitation hasn’t talked about the death of her mother in weeks. When asked what his parents do for a living, that boy down the hall knows how to employ a well–rehearsed response that gives no indication his dad’s been dead for years.
According to a 2010 Balk, Walker & Baker study of college students nationwide, between 35% and 48% students have lost a family member or close friend in the past two years. For every two years, 1.7% of students in college lose a parent. A 2009 survey conducted by Comfort Zone Camp, a camp for grieving children, found that one in nine people can expect to lose a parent before the age of 20.
To grieve at Penn means to grieve while still trying to achieve the “destructive perfectionism” this school tends to demand, a phrase Penn’s Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare used in their recent report. For students who have suffered the loss of a parent, priorities and timing are uncontrollable.
“Obviously, I had good days and bad days,” Pat Zancolli says, squeezing in an interview in the food court next to CVS before his urban education seminar. “I’m still in the process of trying to get 100% up to speed.”
The College freshman and Daily Pennsylvanian reporter has spent the last month adjusting to life without his mom. On December 19th, she checked into a hospital for a severe headache. That headache led to her transfer to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania where she fell into a coma. Though she woke up from the coma, the breathing tube she eventually received didn’t improve her condition. Pat’s mom spent her last days with him in hospice at HUP. She passed away on February 5th.
Coming back to school and classes helped Pat, but the grieving process is still an integral part of his daily life. In Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), he’s found the time to reflect on what had happened.
“At Penn, sometimes it’s easy to forget about stuff like that,” Pat says. “You’re so focused on the stressful environment you’re in and how everyone is trying to keep up with their work.” He admits that taking time to grieve can feel guilty. “[That guilt] is why I wanted to go to CAPS, and that’s why my sessions have been helpful for me.”
CAPS isn’t the only resource for students who lose a parent. CaseNet, a team of university advisors housed in the College Office, provides students with support when they face academic difficulty caused by anything from illness to tragedy.
“One of our explicit goals is to make sure [CaseNet] is in touch with CAPS, SHS, the cultural centers, Weingarten and faculty too,” says Wally Panseng, the Associate Director for Academic Advising in the College Office and CaseNet’s coordinator. “If a student reveals they’re having a difficulty, we try to make sure those folks know we are a resource.” When Penn students lose a parent, advisors let them dictate their next steps.
“Different students have different priorities—what they want to do and what they want to accomplish,” explains Penseng. “[For CaseNet], meeting them where they are, offering them support for what they are going through is really important.”
There is no set protocol for how advisors help a student after the death of a parent. Meeting with a CaseNet advisor can result in anything from dropping a class to leaving for the semester to a seeking help from another resource on campus.
“This is one of the hardest things students go through in our experience,” Penseng says. “So its really meaningful for us to be as supportive as we can in as many ways as we can.”
Two days after her father passed, Lauren received a phone call from a CaseNet advisor. The advisor gave her condolences and the two set up a meeting to get Lauren back on track for the rest of the semester. She needed to decide what her schedule would be like when she returned to campus. When they sat down, Lauren had no problem dropping a class, but the meeting took a turn when her CaseNet advisor asked that she provide “proof of death.”
“It was like, ‘I need to somehow be sure you are not lying to me,’” Lauren recalls of that meeting. “I don’t even know what she said, but that’s how it came off to me. I’m not a very emotional person in front of people,” But, she says, “I almost lost my shit in her office.” Lauren left the meeting with extreme hesitations about future interactions with the advisor.
Just as students must log back in to Penn InTouch and head back to their 9am classes after the loss of a parent, they must also find ways to return to the social lives they left behind.
Before telling people about his mom, Pat always begins with the phrase, “‘I don’t want to make things weird.’
“That’s my thing,” Pat says. “I don’t know if it’s the best thing to say, but I don’t mean to make things weird.” The fear of weighing down social interactions with the knowledge of their past holds some students back from sharing their situations. Pat says, “It’s a touchy subject. You don’t know how people are going to react.” After a loss, every situation from casual conversations in WilCaf to interview questions about family requires an extra level of consideration.
Pat may not know what to say when the topic comes up, but every other Monday night, Actively Moving Forward meetings begin almost as if they’re scripted:
“Hi my name is ____________________ and it’s been X years/months/days since my _______ passed away.”
The students who gather for these meetings know exactly what the conversation will focus on. There’s no fear of making things weird.
In 2007, David Fajgenbaum, a current Wharton MBA, founded Actively Moving Forward at Georgetown University after his mother passed away from cancer. His idea was to get a group together that understood what he was going through—that could help each other deal with the grieving process. The network of support groups has since expanded to about 60 campuses nationwide.
AMF has been at Penn for seven years, and students head there with referrals from CAPS, SHS, and other University resources.
“Grief is such a unique thing and you get so many different responses,” says Melanie Wolff, a College junior and the president of AMF. “So it’s hard to create an organization that caters to every person’s unique grieving process.”
Despite the difficulties, Melanie runs meetings that give other students a welcoming space to discuss the moments in their daily lives which are marked by loss. She first joined three years ago, when she was a freshman.
After losing her mother in her senior year of high school, Melanie was forced to deal with grief on her own for the first time when she came to Penn.
“I think my hardest moment was my one year anniversary. It was probably the darkest time of the year here, all dreary and snowy,” remembers Melanie. “I was breaking down in the bathroom during the day. I think I had AMF that week, and it was super important I went.”
In the end, we only have four years here.
“At the beginning of the semester there are so many opportunities. I had so many high hopes for this semester,” says Pat. “I feel like I’m a little bit behind others, which is frustrating for me. The only thing I can think about that is that each semester is a new thing.”
The death of a parent is one of the most personal forms of grief—yet, simultaneously, one of the most universal. For college students, losing a loved one accelerates the sense of urgency already permeating all other aspects of campus life. It can mean deciding whether or not to skip class on the anniversary of the death or leaving a party to escape a song that brings back old memories.
Sometimes, it just means trying to find a way to tell their story.
Amanda Suarez is a junior Fine Arts major from Philadelphia. She is the current Features editor for 34th Street Magazine. It has been a year and a half since she lost her mother.