Losing a Loved One: Grieving Is Uniquely Personal

Losing a Loved One: Grieving Is Uniquely Personal

lena horne quote

losing a loved one

By Victor Rogers March 5, 2018

Experiencing loss is universal. Divorce, job loss, good health, or the death of a loved one — everyone has had to, or will at some point, navigate through an agonizing loss, while trying to hold it all together.  

“We are whole people. The things we are going through at home come to work with us,” said Sonia Alvarez-Robinson, executive director of Georgia Tech Strategic Consulting.

“When dealing with trauma, it is easy to get stuck in the event,” she said. “While it’s different for each person, many people sometimes feel like they are in chaos, in a fog, or in fight-or-flight mode grasping for answers.”

Alvarez-Robinson knows all too well about loss. In 2013, her husband went into cardiac arrest during what was supposed to be routine surgery. He was in a vegetative state for several weeks before he died. She was then faced with raising their three children as a single mother.

sonia alvarez-robinson

“While it’s different for each person, many people sometimes feel like they are in chaos, in a fog, or in fight-or-flight mode grasping for answers.”

—Sonia Alvarez-Robinson

“It’s sometimes easier to help other people deal with their change,” Alvarez-Robinson said. She has a doctorate in human and organizational behavior, and studied change management for many years. That helped her get her family back on track. She used the same four steps she had used to help others manage change. 

The first step is to demonstrate confidence: “Show them that you can lead them through the upcoming changes.”

Second, show them the possibility of a positive new future: “Here’s a new direction that we can go in.” 

Third, tell them that what they are feeling will pass in time: “Help them know the sun will come out. There will be days of joy and happiness, mixed in with sadness and pain. They won’t be sad forever, but it is normal that it will come and go.”

And fourth, give them an outlet to grieve: “Releasing feelings of sadness, anger, disappointment, and loneliness is healthy.”

Alvarez-Robinson uses these techniques in her personal life and also in her role as the principal empowerment officer of Tech’s Resilience Employee Resource Group (ERG). The Resilience ERG was created in 2015 by Institute Diversity’s Staff Diversity, Inclusion, and Engagement unit as a peer empowerment group to help employees increase resilience and strength, and proactively mitigate the impact of routine stress, crisis, and change.

carrie jones quote

Like Alvarez-Robinson, John M. Stein’s work often includes helping people get through hard times. As Tech’s vice president of Student Life and dean of students, Stein and his staff are usually on the front line when a student dies or when a student loses a loved one.

When a student dies, Stein is often the person who calls the student’s parents and guides them through what they have to do. Similarly, when a student loses a family member and needs to go home, Stein and his office will guide the student through the necessary steps to inform their professors of their personal tragedy, and to arrange makeup work. 

When the student returns to campus after a traumatic event, Stein typically likes to meet with the student.

“I ask how it feels to be back,” he said, “and I remind them that the Counseling Center runs a grief group, and that they can get involved if it fits into their academic schedule, or if they need to meet with a therapist individually.”

Stein recalled a student who returned to campus after a death in his family and said that people did not know how to relate to him.

“They didn’t know what to say or if they should say anything,” Stein said. “Nobody knew how to approach him, and that was the hardest thing. He didn’t want any other students to feel that way, so he created an initiative that is still being used today, even though he graduated years ago. The initiative is called Dear Fellow Yellow Jacket.”

The Dear Fellow Yellow Jacket initiative generates postcards with messages from student peers acknowledging that “we are aware that you have experienced a loss, and we want you to know that we are thinking about you. We are here if you want to talk to someone.”

For confidentiality reasons, students who fill out the cards do not know who is experiencing grief or who will receive the cards.

“Students receiving the cards are shocked and overwhelmed in a positive way that other students thought of them,” Stein said.

dear fellow yellow jacket

In addition to informing the family that their son or daughter has died, Stein and his office inform President G.P. “Bud” Peterson and others on campus, and they work with Institute Communications to write a message to campus. Regarding whether to include the student’s cause of death, Stein follows the lead of the family and respects their wishes.

“We also send Counseling Center staff to where the student was engaged and involved — departments, classrooms, fraternities and sororities, residence halls — if those places and people want someone to come and help them process the loss.”

Honoring the Memory

English novelist George Eliot said, “Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.”

For some who are grieving, it is helpful to create something tangible to honor the memory of the deceased person. At Tech, many families have established scholarships, created endowment funds, or donated gifts in the name of their son or daughter. Sororities and fraternities sometimes choose their philanthropic endeavors based on the cause of death of their fellow student. Others have raised money in support of suicide prevention. Faculty and staff have taken similar steps to honor deceased colleagues.

When Doug Holley died suddenly in 2003, the Office of Development created an annual tradition to honor his memory. Holley, who had just been named director of development for the College of Engineering, was a supporter of the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home, which helps children in crisis. The Office of Development decided to pick up the mantle and support the organization by buying Christmas presents for the children. Each year, Development adorns the “Holley Tree” with ornaments that have the name of a child, along with a gift the child wants. Development staff members select ornaments and purchase two gifts for each child.

Over the past 14 years, the Office of Development has supplied gifts to nearly 600 children.

holley tree ornaments

holley tree ornaments

In spring of 2013, Institute Communications also lost a colleague and friend, Elizabeth Campell, who died suddenly. Campell was a client manager, and a media relations specialist before that. She had worked with departments all over campus.

elizabeth campell bench

“Elizabeth was the first person I met as I arrived at Georgia Tech for my interview in 1990,” said John Taylor, assistant vice president, Institute Communications. “She was so welcoming and encouraging, quickly putting me at ease. That was the beginning of a friendship lasting more than 20 years.”

For several weeks after her death, Campell’s name remained outside her office. Her manager did not rehire for her position right away, choosing instead to temporarily divide Elizabeth’s work among himself and other staffers. Elizabeth’s office was closed, with its contents exactly where she had left them. Her manager and colleagues were reluctant to clean out her office right away.

“We lost not only a colleague but a close friend,” Taylor said. “We had shared our professional and personal lives together every day — exciting projects, work challenges, dating, marriages, family health issues, birth of children. The thought of packing up Elizabeth’s personal items from her office was one more painful and permanent goodbye. We waited several weeks before we undertook this task and then left the office vacant and the door open for several more weeks as a transition before we could envision anyone ever filling that void.”

To honor her memory, Institute Communications dedicated a bench and planted a tree in Campell’s honor at the Campus Recreation Center — where she met her husband, who was a Tech student at the time.

elizabeth campell bench

Each spring, Georgia Tech honors the memory of enrolled students and employees who died during the previous year with an event called When the Whistle Blows. During the ceremony, a unity candle is lit to represent the Tech community, and a family representative is invited to light a candle on behalf of their loved one. This year’s ceremony will be held April 4, from 5:15 to 6 p.m. at Harrison Square, near Tech Tower.

Campus Resources

Employee Assistance Program: hwb.gatech.edu/eap

Employee Resource Groups: c.gatech.edu/erg

When the Whistle Blows: c.gatech.edu/wtwb

Counseling Center: counseling.gatech.edu

Student Support Resources: studentlife.gatech.edu

Student Life Referral: referral.studentlife.gatech.edu