Coping with death
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It seems like the cloud of death has been hovering over the St. John’s community lately.
It feels like every week, every month, I hear of another member of our community that has died.
I am not sure if this is normal, abnormal or this is just a realization of growing up. People die and life keeps moving. But nonetheless, it is difficult to understand when members of our community, any community, are taken prematurely. In fact, in some cases, it is incomprehensible.
But all this death has made me realize something, as a society we really hate to talk about death. We avoid it at all costs. We say people have ‘passed on’, ‘passed away’ or ‘left this world.’ When someone dies we avoid it. We feel uncomfortable talking about it, uncomfortable telling someone we are sorry about their loss and we avoid any conversation at all about the afterlife. We talk about these people in the past, yet the pain of their death is very much in the present. It is something we deal with every day, every hour, every moment and yet, we don’t talk about it.
No matter what you believe, death means a person is here one moment and gone the next. It is hard to understand and difficult to grasp. Every aspect of their life seems to evaporate and yet, we are encouraged to move on. Keep going.
My sister lost her best friend to cancer during her senior year of high school. I remember a tweet she sent out right after he died, “How am I supposed to live when my best friend is gone?” It is a very real question.
When a loved one, friend or peer dies, how do you just go on? How do you pretend nothing has happened? And everything is okay? You are expected to go to school or go to work, but nothing is okay and there is a huge gaping hole in your life. You feel guilt for living, guilt for wanting to trade places with them and guilt for the grief that consumes you. Death is terrifying, especially for the people who remain behind. You are told you must start over, but when the person you love so much is no longer here, why bother?
I am sure many of you can relate to this. By 18 years old, you are bound to have experienced some sort of loss in your life. And if you have not, you are very lucky.
Unfortunately, I have many friends who have lost a parent. Some have lost siblings, some have lost friends, many have lost grandparents and some have even lost significant others. It is heartbreaking. Death is a part of life– so they say. It is a part of the cycle, but it hurts. It hurts real damn bad.
This past fall we lost many crucial members in our community. Thankfully, we are all a part of a very supportive and understanding community, but it is still hard. And I think it is important we acknowledge that as both a community and as individuals we are hurting.
We lost a professor of sociology and anthropology just before finals week, Dr. Roderick Bush, 68, a renowned sociologist and a voice for the African American community. He died of bile duct cancer in the liver, according to his obituary online. One day he was in class and a few weeks later he had died, it was sudden and unexpected. He lead the sociology community. He was a mentor to faculty and students alike. He leaves behind four children and his obituary said he died in his wife’s arms.
Then there was the public safety officer, John Ballantyne, 51, a retired NYPD officer who manned the gate six booth on weeknights. He died a few weeks before Christmas. He has a son who goes to St. John’s and leaves behind four children and his wife, according to his obituary in Newsday. He was known for being extremely friendly and kind to all the students he encountered.
And of course, there was Pam Shea-Byrnes, 49, D. Min., Vice President for University Ministry and University Events. A St. John’s alum herself, she died suddenly on Christmas Eve, according to her obituary in Newsday. Her loss a major blow to St. John’s and felt by every inch of campus. She was a mentor to students, a friend to faculty and a passionate and dedicated member of the community. She leaves behind two children and her husband.
And we lost other faculty members too as well as students. It just doesn’t seem fair. And a few adjectives do not do justice to the lives these people lived.
Grief is powerful and it can overcome a person. Time does not help, it is just time gone by. These people have families. They have children. They are children. They are missing out on weddings, birthdays, graduations and all of life’s milestones. It is okay to feel pain when losing someone and to wonder, what if? Why? It is normal.
And that brings me to my next point. Life is too short to hold grudges. It’s cliche I know. But, it’s true. Death is not some mystical unattainable notion. We have surely learned that by now. It is real and it effects us.
With over 170,000 alumni, of course we are going to feel loss at St. John’s, but it doesn’t make it any easier. It doesn’t make that gaping hole any smaller. It does not make that pain feel any less. And it does not make that person’s life have any less meaning.
I like to think I have a lot of life figured out, but I do not quite have the death thing figured out. Religion tries to understand it, institutions try to understand it and even atheists try to understand it. Maybe it is not meant to be understood. But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it.
To my friends and peers who have lost a parent, I am so very sorry. To my friends who have lost a sibling, I am so very sorry. To the St. John’s community feelings any sort of loss right now, I am so very sorry. But please keep in mind, this community is here to support you and lift you up. Reach out. Ask for help. Confide.
The last thing someone wants to hear when they have lost someone is that ‘you understand.’ Because loss is not understandable except for the person experiencing it– and sometimes they don’t even understand it themselves.
And while ‘I am sorry’ does not do justice to the pain someone may feel–sometimes it means the world to someone to hear those three words when they have just lost their world. Tell people you are sorry. Sometimes they really just need to hear it.
As I have said throughout this column, death cannot be explained, it cannot be put into words and it definitely cannot be deciphered by a column in a school paper. Some of life’s challenges are too great to express in words.
At the end of the day all I can say is, I am so very sorry.
Full list of staff and students who died during the fall semester:
Marguerite Holzer, Library Staff Member (Retired)
Rev. Walter Graham, C.M., Former Vice President for Business Affairs and Treasurer
Rev. John (Jack) McKenna, C.M., Professor (Retired) and former Chair, Department of Theology and Religious Studies
Marilyn Nemzer, Assistant Dean, St. John’s College, Staten Island (Retired)
Dr. Francis Brown, Associate Professor, CPS (Retired)
Aeysha Mary John, Student, College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences
John Ballantyne, Public Safety Officer
Pamela Shea-Byrnes, Ed.D., D. Min, Vice President for University Ministry and University Events
Dr. James Vacca, Associate Professor, Department of Human Services and Counseling
Dr. Roderick D. Bush, Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Dr. Heidi Sung, Associate Professor, Hospitality Management and Tourism
Dr. James Vacca, Associate Professor. Human Services and Counseling
Dr. Amrit Kapoor, Professor, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences