Surviving parental loss, one semester at a time; Students band together to find a rare connection

One morning, senior technology and pre-engineering education major Bianca Sims woke up with the strangest urge, the urge to hunt down a copy of Moby Dick. She knew there was a copy tucked away somewhere in her Newark, home, and she needed to find it.

Sims’s mind reached back to a time when she was eight years old. Her father,  Larry Bludson, knew that he didn’t have much time left before cancer claimed his life. He didn’t want to pass without leaving his daughter a tangible memorial of his love for her.

So, while little Sims was in her room, her father explained to her that he was always going to love her. In that moment, he grabbed some white electrical tape and wrote-out the word “love” on Sims’s brown bedroom walls.

Shortly after his death, the electrical tape was taken off the walls, and delicately placed inside a copy of “Moby Dick.”

Years later, Sims searched for the book, not knowing exactly why until she re-discovered one of her father’s last examples of affection stuck between the pages of the treasured novel.

“It just hit me, that memory I had forgotten, there it was in the book,” Sims said.

Now, Sims, 22, still struggles with the gap her father left.  However, college and a support system of other suffering young adults has helped ease her pain.

Across the country, college campuses have established parental loss counseling groups, support groups and even non-profit organizations. These support systems act as refuges for students who want to grieve with other young people.

Carol Evangelisto, is a licensed professional counselor at the College’s Counseling and Psychological Services, also known as CAPS, and she runs the on-campus parental loss group.

“Off-time death, it, it doesn’t fit in our scheme, in our knowledge of the world,” Evangelisto said about the impact a parental death has on a young person. “And, so when you’re young, and your parent dies, it’s not supposed to happen at that age. They’re supposed to get old, and you’re supposed to get old with them.”

Ms. Evangelisto has been working as a counselor at the College for 21 years, and the pain of students not being able to see their parents turn old and gray is an issue near and dear to her heart.

Evangelisto is able to relate to the students who come into her office in Eickhoff Hall, and break down to a puddle over the fact that one minute they were able to call up their mom or dad and tell them the happenings of their day, and the next minute, one of their parents is gone. The students are left confused and aching for answers in an already confusing time in their life. Evangelisto, herself, lost her mother at 13, and her father when she was 27.

“It all helps me do this work,” Evangelisto  said about how the deaths of her parents have influenced her abilities to connect with grieving students.

Amy Soltes, senior accounting major, also participates in the parental loss group on campus. Her mother died of breast cancer last February when Soltes was 21 years old.

“When I was little, and she first got diagnosed, she had to take Tamoxifen to prevent it from coming back,” Soltes recounted in the College’s student center. “She had to take it for six years, and she like showed me the bottle, and was telling me about it to help me understand.”

Soltes continued the story, waving her hands to express that telling a six year old that her mother would be taking cancer treatment pills for the next six years, was basically explaining a life-sentence of pill-popping.

“So, when I was 12, I came downstairs for breakfast, and I have this pill bottle thrown at my head,”  Soltes said, half giggling. “I’m like, ‘what was that for?’.”

Soltes smiled as she recounted the groggy morning in  middle school. Her mother had thrown the pill bottle at her head to show her daughter that the cancer treatment was completed. The threat of death and losing her mom was erased from Soltes’ mind, for that moment, at least.

“When she got sick again, it was tough, because we all thought it was done,” Soltes said.

Soltes explained that even though friends and family are great to have as a support system, if they haven’t been through that type of pain, they’re not going to be able to help as much as a parental loss group. Friends will give hugs, and awkward sympathetic smiles, but there will always be that disconnect, explained Soltes. People who don’t know exactly what to say, don’t want to offend, so they won’t say much about the loss or the pain. Or, according to Soltes, sometimes when she explains her loss to friends, she has to comfort them because they feel so bad about the loss.

Soltes described that in a support group a person doesn’t have to explain the pain or worry about the judgement. In a college support group, everyone is the same age and has similar life circumstances in addition to their common loss. In a support group crying is accepted and expected.

“We call it a really exclusive club. You have to pay a really high price to get into it. And you’re inducted into it involuntarily. That’s what we call it,” Soltes joked about the uncontrollable eliteness of being a member in the support group.

What most people don’t know if they haven’t experienced pain, according to both Sims and Soltes, is that even though a parent may no longer be physically there, they are still present in their child’s mind.

“My mom is almost like my conscience,” Soltes explained. “When you’re little, your parents are teaching you. Even though I consider myself a fairly responsible adult, I still have my mom’s voice in my head. Especially when it comes to like, studying for my finals.”

Sims even recounted of how she still talks to her father, and how she still wants answers to questions that have been nagging her.

“I’m trying to get some feedback, maybe about changing my major, or dealing with friends,” Sims said.  “If something pops in my head, it’s from him. So, he’s still right there in mind, helping me along.”

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