Grieving the loss of a parent is difficult and dreaded at any age, but for most college-aged individuals, the thought is often miles away.
But several Castleton University alums have stepped forward to discuss what it has been like to lose a parent so early in life and how they’re surviving.
These women and others dealing with this type of trauma remind us that, in a year of such loss and hardship, it’s crucial to have open dialogue on death and grief.
Taylor and Jim
Music was always what had brought Taylor Sanders and her father, Jim, together. Now 25, Taylor is determined to learn guitar in honor of her father, who died after a suspected heart attack in late October this past year.
“My dad was my little acoustic behind me whenever I wanted to sing a song. Now, I have to be my own band and I feel like I took it for granted,” Sanders said.
An avid “Fat-Biker” and general outdoorsman, Sanders described her father as her best friend and the one person that understood every piece of her.
Sanders graduated Castleton in 2019 with a degree in sociology and in the months since her father’s passing, says her purpose and motivations in life have shifted drastically. In dealing with both the emotional plateaus and pitfalls of grief, she’s focused on pursing the future and knowing what it means to her.
“I do everything for my dad. I don’t really do it for me anymore. I want to go get my master’s now because my dad had his Master’s. Just because he’s gone doesn’t mean I can’t make him proud,” Sanders said.
Callie and Shawn
Callie Flanders recalled her father, Shawn, as adventurous, joyful, and an all-around amazing man. Though he lived in Texas, Flanders said she and her father were incredibly close and visited often.
“All of my Facebook memories this last week — which I think it’s usually Castleton spring break — are of me visiting him. Those were always such fun trips,” she said.
Flanders graduated from Castleton University in 2017, but her father watched her walk the stage in the spring of 2018. The two shared a love of nature and a sense of humor – both of which she has appreciated all the more since her father’s passing.
Only 44 years old, Shawn Flanders died the week of Thanksgiving 2020 from a heart attack and Callie admits she’s still very early in the grieving process. She stressed how she really thought she had more time with her dad and how important it is to make every second matter.
“Because of COVID and him living in Texas, I hadn’t seen him since my brother’s high school graduation, which was June of 2019,” said Flanders. “I had a lot of anger about people not following COVID rules — I was like ‘maybe I could’ve seen him sooner.’”
Brittany and Richard
Brittany Haskins was first introduced to her step-father, Richard Emmons, at 2 years old and ever since, the two have been thick as thieves. Now 31 with a family and step-child of her own, Haskins is dealing with the loss of her own role-model.
“My dad was the best example of how to love someone you didn’t help create. There are certainly days where it’s not easy, but I wouldn’t trade it,” Haskins said with a chuckle.
Haskins’ step-dad passed on Valentine’s Day this year in a snowmobiling accident. She’s been grateful to have her sister by her side and said their grief has presented in many different ways. Sometimes, entire days will be spent talking about their father and other days, they’ll say nothing at all.
Protective, stubborn, and Vermont through and through, Richard and Brittany were incredibly close. After his passing, Haskins struggled and often reached out in hopes he would give her a sign.
“‘Send me an owl,’ I said. Because those have a lot of significance in our family and I’ve only ever seen two in my life. And that weekend, I saw three,” Haskins said through stifled tears.
No wrong way to grieve
What these women have come to prove since the loss of their parent is that grief and trauma comes in waves and it’s alright to “just cope” sometimes.
“Do whatever feels right. There’s no wrong way to grieve,” Haskins said. “If you got takeout on paper plates and your kid was at least fed and safe, but you weren’t super mom, that’s OK.”
The death of a loved one brings with it a rollercoaster of emotion and emptiness. Flanders added that it’s important to not blow past these emotions in the name of progress, but to work with them as you heal.
“It’s really important to take the time to process and not, kind of, push things down,” Flanders said.
Sanders stressed to remind individuals that reaching out to her communities is something that’s been incredibly helpful as well. One of the first people she reached out to after learning of her father’s death was Amy Bremmel in the Wellness Center. Not only did Bremmel connect Sanders with a therapist, but she stood as an ear when many couldn’t.
“I lost a lot of friends. For me it’s not about how to handle it. It’s about just being there no matter what,” Sanders said. “I feel like something’s wrong with me because people need to talk to me in a certain way. I’m just a person.”
If you or a loved one is struggling with a familial death, please reach out to the Castleton Wellness Center by group chat or to connect with other resources. The Healing From Grief And Loss group chat is held Tuesdays at 1 p.m.