Living after losing: Grief in the midst of death
As many students and teachers have lost members of their immediate family, the Dart gets a glimpse of what their experience is like and how they have moved forward since.
November 20, 2017
IN THE MIDST OF GRIEF
It was finals week at Rockhurst University. Her buzzing phone interrupted the silent library, notifying her about some car accident. She didn’t think much of it. Why should she? She gets those on a regular basis.
It wasn’t until her dad told her to come home that she started to panic.
“In my gut, in my gut I knew it was Becca; I knew there was something up with Becca,” science teacher Maddie Lueke said. “Because Becca and I — when I say she’s my best friend… we were super connected and I just knew it in my gut.”
As she sat outside the library, her boyfriend ready to drive her home, she tried to get answers. She called her older sister Allie, her younger sister Eleanor, her dad and her mom. No one answered.
“But I never tried to call Becca,” Lueke said.
Finally her mom called her back, informing her “it was an accident,” a car accident killing her sister, changing her life forever.
It was the drive home where Lueke said everything hit her, meaning everything.
“‘Who am I gonna share a monterey burrito with at Manny’s?’ I literally said that,” Lueke said.
She was supposed to be her maid of honor at her wedding, she and her sisters had planned it out for a reason. And who was she going to share a bed with on vacation?
It was the little things Lueke initially noticed that reinforced her sister was, in fact, gone.
“She had gone shopping and there was a bag of clothes that she had bought on the ground and I was like ‘She’s never gonna wear those,’” Lueke said.
Lueke feels that, even today, when their entire family is gathered around the dinner table, it still feels small.
“[It’s] noticeable,” Lueke said. “At her wake, when we sat in descending order, we literally left a seat between me and Eleanor because it just didn’t seem right.”
Senior Kate Loman recalls similar feelings around the time of initial loss of her dad to Multiple Sclerosis when she was a freshman. She thinks about him around major holidays, but also smaller, more intimate times that only she would have a recollection of, like waiting for him to return from work. It was an adjustment breaking the habits she never consciously realized were there.
“I used to sit and do my homework at the kitchen table and stop and just stare at the door,” Loman said.
Loman’s dad was “one of those dads” — the kind who would buy the over-the-top Russell Stover’s chocolate boxes and flowers for his “little princess” on Valentine’s Day.
“On Valentine’s Day, I somewhat grieve for that,” Loman said. “And it’s not like I’m gonna make my mom do that. She wasn’t the one who did that, so I can’t recreate that memory. It’s just kind of a memory I have now.”
It’s the hundreds of thousands of memories people shared with Becca Lueke that brought out an incredible number of supporters. But that isn’t to say there were some stray supporters who had good intentions, but didn’t help in Lueke’s grieving process.
“People would come up to me at parties and they’d touch my arm and be like ‘How are you?’” Lueke said, wide-eyed about the ridiculousness of the situation. “I’m like ‘I’m doing alright, I’m here,’ and they’re like ‘Are you sure you’re alright?’ And I’m like “Yes, I’m trying to have a good time right now, so leave me alone.’”
Worse than that, Lueke felt like it had become a “thing” around her community.
“People would just look at you because you’re the girl whose sister died,” Lueke said.
She saw a lot of people “come out of the woodwork,” wanting to get involved for not all the right reasons.
“The thing that sucks is that when you are in that position, it sometimes feels like people are wanting to talk to you because they want to say they reached out to you,” Lueke said. “Some of it is people that care and some of it, unfortunately, is people that don’t care, but they want to be related to it.”
Loman had similar feelings towards some people’s unhelpful responses. She said that the hardest thing she has had to deal with throughout the entire grieving process was people’s pity.
“I hate the ‘I’m so sorry,’” Loman said.
Loman feels as if people were defining her by this single thing in her life when apologizes for her loss came.
“I don’t want your pity,” Loman said. “I want you to see me for who I am, and that is just a piece of me. It is not who I am. It’s just there.”
Loman says that this is due to the fact that she is simply a more rational than emotional person. The way she handled her father’s passing was first emotionally, then rationally.
Both Lueke and Loman described their life now as a “new normal.”
“Now I look back on things and laugh instead of cry,” Lueke said. “I mean some things still make me cry, but it’s easier to talk about. You can’t think about the way things used to be because they’re not gonna be like that anymore, and thinking about it isn’t going to help. So you have to just find ways to move forward and not live in the past.”
Loman described her life now similarly, saying now she just has a “new routine.”
“I just wanted to feel normal again,” Loman said. “That was what my main goal was… I still don’t feel ‘normal.’”
Lueke felt extremely grateful that the loss of her sister didn’t cause a divide for anyone her family, especially her parents, seeing as divorce rates spike to eight times the norm after the loss of a child, according to the Journal of Family Psychology.
“I don’t think [the loss of my sister] made anyone [in my family] distant, and I’ve repeatedly said just how important that’s been and how special that is,” Lueke said.
According to Lueke, her parents’ leading response was to blame themselves. Her mom was the one who told Becca to wait to drive back to college in the morning, because the roads would be safer. And her dad thought he should have bought a safer car.
But come the time of Becca’s wake, Lueke’s family wasn’t focusing on their own grievances. Lueke said it was a time for other people to grieve, and for them to comfort, a “really weird dynamic,” but she doesn’t remember crying much during the wake. Junior Clare Herrington, who lost her mom when she was a freshman, feels similarly.
“When you actually have a funeral, it seems like it is more for other people than yourself,” Herrington said.
Picture a family party, except you know fewer people. Awkward, stiff and overall uncomfortable.
“I hated it,” Herrington said.
But for Lueke, she remembers Becca’s a little differently.
“Her visitation was nothing short of amazing,” Lueke said.
It was held at St. Teresa’s, and the seniors had just decorated the quad with white, twinkling lights, as they do every year, but this time made it even more beautiful for the special circumstances. It was estimated that 2,500 people were present.
Counselor Amanda Johnson Whitcomb recalled how powerful it felt being in a room with that many people, and how the group setting was meant for those grieving to not feel as though they are alone.
“Sometimes it’s not even what people say or do, sometimes it’s just being with one another,” Whitcomb said.
For Loman, her dad’s funeral was an opportunity to keep her mind busy. She organized the entire thing — she picked the building, the songs, the floral arrangements and the photographer.
“[My mom] knew this was a way for me to get closure,” Loman said. “She knew this was one of my things, and she would help me at times, with the credit card. But at the end of it, I was the one who organized the funeral, set the time, the date, all of it.”
In one word, her father’s funeral was overwhelming. They expected about 300 people and got a thousand. It was a huge throng of humans giving her endless hugs, telling her how similar she looks to her dad, making her “terribly uncomfortable…[and] stiff armed.”
“It was just a big mess of people,” Loman said. “And not a bad mess, it was a beautiful mess. My dad was a very loved man, but at the end of it, it was for us.”
Herrington said that there were some shifts that naturally had to occur in her family dynamic in order to compensate for the absence of her mother.
“My older sister, Maggie, she took on more,” Herrington said. “…Me and my younger brother looked up to her for things, she kind of filled some of the roles that my mom had. And then I had to become more responsible for myself, just doing things that she’d normally do.”
On top of that, she said her dad had to take on a bigger role, and her aunts would come to her house and bring food or help clean, whatever was needed.
After Loman’s dad passed, there were similar adjustments, but also some new opportunities. His life insurance was able to pay for Loman to start school at St. Teresa’s her sophomore year.
“As a child, [my dad would] push my mom really hard for me to go here,” Loman said. “It was [my first day] at STA, in the quad, and I was looking at the bricks because I was like, ‘What the heck is this?’ So I started reading them, and there was one that I specifically remember and I know where it is in the quad, and it says, ‘Kate rocks.’ So I just knew that I was supposed to go here.”
According to Lueke, her family would not have gotten through it if it weren’t for her seven year old brother, William, who was four when his sister passed. Her parents were determined to not let him have a depressing childhood, including opening presents just a couple weeks after Becca died, on Christmas morning.
“It makes me sad that William won’t remember her,” Lueke said. “He does, he has the best memory. He will tell me about things he did when he was two years old. And I think one of the reasons he has a good memory is because he works on it so hard, so he doesn’t forget her.”
However sudden it was, Lueke has still found signs that align what happened with her sister, “little things that happen all the time.”
The night before Becca’s car accident, Becca and her mom were watching Grey’s Anatomy. In the episode, a boy died in a car accident and ended up donating all of his organs. Not only did Becca also pass in a car accident, but she donated all of her organs.
The morning of the accident, Lueke’s mom texted in their family group message: Today’s a good day, there were just three cardinals outside. Lueke found out later that cardinals and other brightly colored birds are a famous sign of loved ones who have passed away.
“She was very there,” Lueke said.
According to Lueke, this was the most defining moment in her spiritual journey, seeing as she could have so easily given up.
“I found those things comforting, and I still do because there are still things that pop up and I’m like ‘Damn it Becca, I know that was you,’” Lueke said.
Now, Lueke’s family seizes every opportunity.
“My dad has just embraced living in the moment and maybe not living everyday like it’s your last, because he’s fiscally super responsible and a financial planner, but now, when opportunities present themselves, he takes them,” Lueke said.
The year after Becca passed away, University of Dayton, Lueke’s older sister’s college, made it to the Sweet 16 in basketball, and with a text from their dad saying: Who’s in? their whole family went. But it wasn’t anything compared to the spontaneity of when, at 2 a.m., right after New Year’s Eve, he texted: Who wants to go to Disney World tomorrow? And they went.
“It’s still not that it made sense,” Lueke said. “But the way that things happened, you feel like it was set up so you know she’s alright.”