Grieving students cope with the loss of loved ones

Dani Carr and Madeline Hussey

Content warning: this story contains discussions of death.

That feeling when you know you will never talk to someone again is one of the worst feelings in the world. Yet this past year, it’s become a feeling too many people have become familiar with, as loved ones passed away. Mourning these deaths has been no easy task. But it is even harder when a global pandemic prohibits you from gathering with your family to properly mourn, according to sophomore Hannah Sawyer.

Sawyer lost a close family friend in April 2020 when the pandemic began. Father Graham Smith, a priest at Sawyer’s church, died from Hodgkin’s lymphoma and pneumonia. For Sawyer, Smith was family in every way but blood and he was present for everything in her family’s lives, big and small.

“He did so much for my family,” Sawyer explained. “After I was born, he was the first person outside of my parents to meet me.”

Losing Smith during the pandemic opened Sawyer’s eyes to the impact quarantine was having on her, Sawyer shared.

“[His death] really made me more aware of the effect isolation was having on me,” Sawyer said. “I think it kind of gave
me more time to reflect over his death because I wasn’t thinking about much of anything at that time.”

Senior Kelly Pollina’s grandfather died from Covid-19 right before Thanksgiving, about a week after his diagnosis. Pollina’s grandfather helped influence and shape Pollina’s life and the person she has grown into today.

“He was someone who I really looked up to and I really wanted to make him proud,” Pollina shared. “He’s a big reason that I work so hard in school and at my job and have these big goals.”

When the pandemic began last year, Pollina was fearful of it, but it did not initially impact her personally. Then the pandemic affected her personally and her opinions changed.

“Having somebody in my family that I knew and I loved—seeing them suffer and pass away because of the virus really made me fearful and angry,” Pollina explained. “I was angry at the people that weren’t wearing a mask and that weren’t social distancing, because if they just listened then maybe he wouldn’t have passed away.”

Grieving her grandfather’s death was immensely difficult, and because of the pandemic, Pollina had to stay in quarantine. She explained that this allowed her to connect with her immediate family more throughout the ordeal.

“It was kind of a curse and a blessing,” Pollina said. “I was able to spend that time with my family,”

To senior Melissa Nacheman, funerals are a crucial time of closure in grieving, however, she was unable to attend one for her family friend’s due to Covid-19 restrictions. Despite this, she found a way to move forward by focusing on happy memories. Nacheman emphasized the importance of not taking time with loved ones for granted.

“We have to cherish the time that we do get,” Nacheman explained. “You never anticipate something like that happening.”

Junior Marina Alexis also lost a grandparent due to asphyxiation of the throat in June. Alexis, who spent her life with her grandparents living in the same town as her, was heartbroken when she found out her grandfather had passed.
“We were very close,” Alexis shared. “[He was] a very good friend of mine. “Covid-19 changed how Alexis mourned her grandfather and gave her a new perspective on both his life and her own during the pandemic.

“The day I found out he had passed, there was nothing I could do about it,” Alexis said. “Because of [Covid-19], I was not allowed to go to the hospital to visit him. There was nothing more I could do than sit at home.”

She remarked how her grandfather always lived his life to the fullest, and how she hopes to follow in his footsteps and live in the moment, as he did. To process her grief, Alexis and her family worked on selling his house, which helped her cope with his death.

“For the first months you just have to persevere and move forward and we had a lot to do,” Alexis said. “So that was our main focus, and to be honest, it was a great way to get my mind off the sadness and the grieving because I get to spend a lot more time in the house that he lived in with [his] family.”

She focused on other aspects of her life, like schoolwork, in order to process her grief.

“I actually continued working on some of my U.S. history homework because [that was] the class I was taking over the summer,” Alexis said. “I just had a loss of control; there was not much I could do. The one thing I could control was my schoolwork, and that’s what I did.”

But focusing on schoolwork doesn’t help everyone cope during mourning. Some people find it harder to focus on school, which faculty members at South understand and respect. Principal Dr. Lauren Fagel said that the school provides emotional support through counselors and emphasized the importance of mental health to achieve academic success.

“We are always focused on supporting students in three ways: socially, emotionally and academically,” Fagel explained. “They are intertwined. When a student experiences a death in their family, we know they need additional support.”

These losses affected each student at South in a different way, and Pollina was able to reflect on her grandfather’s view of life and how she lived her life because of it.

“He gave the best advice,” Pollina reminisced. “He had crazy stories of when he was younger and the crazy things he did with his friends. He’s just a really big mentor and a really big reason that I am successful.”