Andrew Cremins sits in the living room late on Sunday night after finishing his homework. He pulls out his phone and begins typing a goodnight message to his dad, but stops and remembers that even if he sent the message it wouldn’t be received and there would be no response.
“It was probably one of the more surreal things that happened in my life. When it happened, I don’t know how it is for everybody, but you almost can’t even believe it. It becomes unfathomable, like it is a dream almost.”
Cremins, a senior at Castleton College, lost his father to cancer in May, just a week before graduation. Around Easter, Cremins’ father said his legs had filled with fluid and weren’t working correctly, meaning his kidneys were failing. He had to get them drained. He was losing his two-year battle to cancer.
Cremins left college about a week early to travel down to Massachusetts General in Boston.
“It’s one of the best hospitals in the world,” he said. “So I knew if they couldn’t do anything that he was pretty much in God’s hands at this point, and I understood that. I wouldn’t wish that upon even the worst people in the world. It sucks, but it’s a reality.”
For most college students, their reality involves classes, sports, homework and parties. Not many realize that some students’ reality involves losing one of the most important role models of their life. For Cassie Harnett, it wasn’t just about losing an inspiration, it was losing financial stability.
Harnett was a sophomore at the University of Vermont when she got a phone call saying her father had been diagnosed at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute with stage-four Lymphoma after he had noticed a small lump on his body around Christmas time.
“My dad was my biggest supporter. He was always telling me, get your degree, get your degree, it means the world and pretty much money,” Harnett said. “It’s hard because my dad did generate some very good income and there are a lot of things I can’t necessarily afford, so I’ve had to take out many student loans and apply for grants and scholarships.”
But her dad’s passing may have also helped her find her focus.
“It’s a huge impact on you,” said Harnett. “I know what I want to be doing with my life, and I think since my dad has passed away, I have definitely figured out where I want to be going, what I want to be doing and I finally moved home to Rutland and transferred to Castleton.
“It has been the best experience. I’ve actually branched out and have been writing news stories, and meeting new people. Being in college helped me through it a lot. My friends are a great support group and there are many other people in the same boat.”
Senior Nicole Irwin lost her father the week before finals two years ago in May. When she was in second grade, he was diagnosed with cancer and doctors removed a tumor. As most know, after five years, one is considered cancer free. But, she said, the doctors had failed to undergo one test and a year later, Irwin’s father knew something was wrong. He began chemotherapy, but by the time Irwin was a junior in high school the cancer had spread to his hip bone and it became stage-four.
“I knew at that point. So I started spending as much time with him as I could. It was rough, he was very sick,” she said.
When doctors notified Irwin and her family that her father could have between 24 hours and a couple days left to live, she packed up the week before finals to go home and began to say her goodbyes.
“My mom one night asked me to go check on my dad because she was frightened. He hadn’t moved in hours. So I went into his room and there wasn’t a heartbeat, it was 3:30 a.m.,” she said.
Harnett and Irwin both agreed that being in college was a helpful distraction because they were surrounded by friends.
When students rally with other students, it helps to keep an extended family.
“There is no easy way, but being surrounded by friends and keeping yourself distracted is the best way to do it,” said Irwin.Irwin found herself surrounded by friends that cared for her and she joined the Alphasi Theatre Institution, an honors society for college students at Castleton.
“It was something fun to do even in the midst of sadness. It doesn’t really go away,” Irwin said.
Castleton President Dave Wolk echoed their comments that being at Castleton can perhaps actually ease the pain a little.
“College can help because you have the warm embrace of a loving family. And that might include a student’s friends, suitemates, advisor, coaches, teammates, professors, student life. I think you have a built-in network, kind of like a safety net,” he said.
When a parent dies, the school is notified. Depending on the circumstances – whether or not the student was expecting it, or whether it was violent – all contribute to how the student is approached said Dean of Students Dennis Proulx.
Public Safety officers or Proulx are the first notified. Depending on what time of death or where the student lives also factors into play. An off-campus student would be notified by the local police. A student living on campus, depending on what time of day, could be notified by a friendly face from student life or a Public Safety officer.
“They are very difficult phone calls. As a professional, I have to deliver a lot of bad news. It is very hard, my heart breaks every time,” said Proulx.
And as difficult as being the one to lose a parent too soon can be, Harnett said she had been able to reflect and focus on the good time she had with her dad.
“I’ve met people who have lost parents at younger ages than I have and you learn every day, you had them for as long as you did. They teach me just be grateful,” she said.