Students cope with grief as a community

Tamonda GriffithsEditor-in-Chief

Jessica Guerrucci – Managing Editor

Grief, according to Chaplain Jim Furlong, is an inevitable part of life. Loss, he said, is another one of those realities that everyone will encounter, and all go through.

“You know the stages without even following them, unless you can’t get out of grief and that is where the concern comes in,” said Furlong. “People do have serious adverse reactions to grief.”

After the loss of two students during the fall 2019 semester — nursing major Melanie Coleman, a junior, and history major Sean Gallo, a transfer student — the campus had to find ways to cope.

In an email sent out by the Director of Integrated Communications and Marketing Patrick Dilger, he said the death of a student is “among the most difficult things that a campus will ever deal with.”

“In these days of social media, you need to pull together a message quickly,” said Dilger, “and typically you want to give the community the essentials of what happened without going too far.”

It is important, Dilger said to inform the campus community not only what occurred, but also how the university is handling the situation and what resources are available to deal with the sudden loss. Often times, he said, students especially tend to learn information, whether factual or not from social media.

“They’re all tragic deaths,” said Dilger.

One of the ways the campus honored Coleman was by holding a memorial in her honor which gave her teammates from her gymnastics team, as well as her professors and her peers, an opportunity to share stories about her.

Despite the tragic nature of the situation, Furlong said he saw different communities on campus come together and honor Coleman as they tried to move forward together in the grieving process.

“Human beings are social animals, we need each other,” said Furlong. “There’s no such thing as individual spirituality. It has to be done in a community in order for it to be healthy. You have to have other people around you just to get through life.”

Though Gallo’s untimely death did not gather the national attention that Coleman’s did, Furlong said his friends and family still got together to cope with the grief.

“There was hugging, there was crying, there was pats on the back, there was ‘I’m there for you,’ ‘I love you,’ all the social things we do as people,” he said.

However, in some cases, Furlong said people often do not know what to do when people encounter a friend who has had a family member or friend who is close to them pass away, and the best thing you can do is ask if there is anything you can do for them or just be there and listen.

Considering all this, for both student deaths, counseling services were offered to students to help them cope. Director of the Counseling Center Nick Pinkerton said they try to make a presence to those who are most affected and let everyone know how to access services in case they need support.

In his experience, however, Pinkerton said students do not come immediately after the passing, instead it takes a little while for people to want to come into a professional.

“I think the initial shock is difficult, but there’s also a community that’s around and understands the loss and is feeling that loss and experiencing it together, and the fact that they’re experiencing it together can sometimes be protective and supportive,” said Pinkerton.

When people do come in for counseling, he said he likes to let them know about the stages of grief, but he prefers to think of them as “phases.” He said the first is denial, then anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

He said out of all the stages anger is the most “taboo” because it is difficult to know where to put it and where to direct it.

“It’s important to know that anger is a part of many people’s grief,” said Pinkerton “so it’s important that people give them a sense of compassion and understanding. Anger isn’t bad, it’s more about what you do with it.”

Sophomore, Elida Flores, an English major said while she did not know Gallo nor Coleman personally, but she still felt shocked by the news of their untimely deaths.

“They’re kids your age,” said Flores, “and you kind of think they’re trying to do the same thing you are.”

Flores said these deaths make students think about their own lives and the trials, tribulations or successes they may have encountered on their own journey to earn a degree.

“[Gallo] he transferred here,” said Flores. “So, he probably did the community college thing, like WestConn then come to Southern. He probably really worked hard; [he was] working for his future. And then [Coleman] was a gymnast.”

Flores said some of her teammates on the Women’s Rugby team knew Coleman and seeing their grief caused her sadness as a result.

“Just seeing my friends distraught over it – I heard all the good things about her [and] it’s like, ‘Man, that’s somebody, one less person really good,’” said Flores.

As a married woman, Flores said she coped with the two untimely deaths with affirmations of love and support toward her family members.

“I talk to my husband a lot,” said Flores. “I [say], ‘Hey, I love you.’ [to him] or my family. It makes you think about your own family.”

Sophomore, Angel Rodriguez, a music and creative writing double major said he was also shocked.

“Honestly, I never expected it to happen,” said Rodriguez, “especially in the ways both of them had passed, I would have never expected both of them to have passed in such tragic ways.”

Coleman had passed away on the evening of Sunday, Nov. 10 after sustaining a spinal cord injury following gymnastics training session the prior Friday, According to several reports. Gallo was found unresponsive in his parked vehicle in the West Campus Parking Garage the morning of Sunday, Oct. 20.

Southern Police Chief Joseph Dooley said his department has continued their investigation of the incident and found no foul play surrounding Gallo’s death.

Police officers, Dooley said to get into law enforcement because they want to help people in the most professional way possible.

“Our role is first and foremost the protection of life,” said Dooley, “and so we treated it with the utmost expediency in getting there and realized that what we had was that he had expired. So with that, it’s our job to stabilize the scene, determine, you know make a determination for what we have.”

While they are trained to deal with various emergency situations, Dooley said Southern Police grieve with the campus too.

“[Gallo was] a member of our community and we’re – it’s not just police protecting the community, it’s the community as a whole that keeps everyone safe,” said Dooley. “It was very, very tragic.”

Dooley said although the campus police did not respond to Coleman’s death since it was off-campus, it does not diminish the loss of life nor the grief.

Deputy Chief Kenneth Rahn, Dooley said coordinated with the Milford Police Department to assist during the funeral procession as a sign of respect to the Coleman family.

“I came from a very good community in Milford,” said Rahn, who formerly worked as deputy police Milford Police Department, “just like Chief Dooley came from a good community in Orange where we had strong ties with the communities. The effect that it had on the emotions of the officers in the aftermath [of these deaths], it really hits home on both levels.”

Dooley named Sergeant Richard Anderson and Officer Sergio Nunez as just a few officers who had attended the funeral; Anderson, he said knew the family personally.

At Gallo’s wake, Dooley said Detective William Rivera was in attendance as a show of support and respect from the department.

“It was important that we be there as a member of our community,” said Dooley, “we are the police.”

Dooley said it is important to check up on officers following these sorts of tragic incidents.

“Southern has an Employee Assistance Program for all the employees here on campus,” said Dooley, “and the police department is part of that. We also have an EAP program that’s specifically public safety related to deal with police officers and the trauma that we see.”

In addition to the EAP, Dooley said the department provides a peer support program run by Sergeant Anderson and Officer Kim Clare called Serve Well, Be Well.

The Serve Well, Be Well program, Dooley said designed to address what the department refers to as “an after-action.”

“Even if they say they’re okay, we monitor our people,” said Dooley. “When you’re seeing tragedy, it can wear on you and a good professional department will conduct those sessions whether someone says they’re fine or not.”

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