He strolls into his mom’s room. After a normal day, he only wants someone to talk with.
He sits down near the edge of the bed and begins to open up about school.
But no matter what he says, no matter how loud he shouts, no matter how long he rambles on, she never reacts.
His mom has been in hospice care for two months, wavering in and out of consciousness each day. There is nothing the doctors can do.
His mother is dying of pancreatic cancer.
Freshman Colton Barber’s mother passed away on March 27, 2014, just 15 months after being diagnosed. In his eyes, she was only present as a motionless body.
“She was basically gone,” Barber said. “She had been under cancer treatment for a year, so at that point she was never awake.”
Pancreatic cancer starts off as a nearly undetectable disease, with symptoms usually not developing until the cancer spreads to the blood vessels surrounding the pancreas.
Once the symptoms begin to appear, they can include jaundice, digestive issues, abdominal pains, loss of appetite, blood clots and weight loss.
The cancer starts in the pancreas, then spreads to the surrounding tissue and blood vessels and the last stage is classified with the presence of the cancer in multiple organs in the body.
Senior Cameron Lam, whose father died of cancer in June 2015, had a very similar experience after his father’s condition took a turn for the worse at the beginning of the summer.
“It was really just a part of life,” Lam said. “However long he had left was really just how long he had left. I just kind of mentally prepared myself, but it was still hard.”
While Barber was offered help from the counselor, his family and his friends, he turned it all down. To this day, he believes assistance could have facilitated his emotional healing.
“I don’t really regret any choices I made,” Barber said, “except not talking to her more when she was sick because I isolated myself from everybody, including her.”
Director of Counseling Barbara Van Drie suggests finding backing is one of the most effective ways to cope with the toll that any death delivers.
“I would use support wherever they find it because a lot of times, grief interferes with the ability to function in many domains of life,” Van Drie said.
She also said support doesn’t have to come from someone inside the school community. For some, academics and athletics can be welcomed escapes from the heartache at home.
“Sometimes guys just want school to be a place where things are kind of normal when things aren’t normal anywhere else,” Van Drie said. “It’s a place where they don’t have to deal with it so much.”
Even if school is a way to escape, there is no way to truly get away from all of the challenges students of all grades are faced with.
Because they were still enrolled in their classes, Lam and Barber both had to find ways to handle their coursework and life outside school. But their strategies were very different.
Barber said if he had to deal with his mom’s death in high school, it could have been much more detrimental to his grades. However, even in Middle School, his grades did suffer a drastic drop.
“I definitely didn’t study,” Barber said, “and I did very minimal homework.”
Lam, on the other hand, felt he had a responsibility to his father to continue doing the best work he could, thus leading him to a top-tier college in the future.
“It’s even more important now that he’s gone because he had given me the opportunity to make the most of what I had,” Lam said. “So I owed it to him to try to find success.”
Van Drie believes both reactions are normal, simply because everybody deals with loss and grief differently.
“Lots of times you don’t sleep as well, sometimes you lose some of your routines, so I wouldn’t be surprised if academics were affected,” Van Drie said. “But for some kids, the reaction is different. They push harder. They want to do well to make that person proud. So they almost have the opposite reaction.”
Once the academics can be pushed to the side, even for a short time, much of what floats around in Barber and Lam’s minds are thoughts and memories of their parents.
Barber still sees his mom as a very positive influence, even though much of what he remembers comes from stories told to him by family and friends after her death.
“I never saw her in a negative light because she was happy to be wherever she was,” he said.
Lam remembers many of the same things about his own father.
The custom of telling stories shortly after a person’s death has helped keep his dad’s memory alive in Lam and his family’s hearts.
“I have a lot more childhood stories that I could tell now and stuff like that,” Lam said. “He wasn’t infallible or perfect — by any means, like no one is — but I remember all of the positives way more than any of the negatives.”
Barber said it has become natural to have his mind wander off to thoughts of his mother, no matter the time or place.
“Every once in a while, I will just think about it, and everything around me stops. And it all really makes sense for a second. I think, ‘Wow. That happened.’ I am faced with that thought a lot, that she did pass away, and I didn’t really understand it.”
Lam is faced with those same heart-wrenching thoughts day-in and day-out, even more so when uncommon or new things happen. Even something as simple as Homecoming.
“Normally what we would always do for Homecoming was me and my mom and dad would take a picture,” Lam said. “So when you start noticing those differences, and you realize that this thing you have always had by your side is just not there anymore.”
Van Drie said these differences can produce a personality change that varies from student to student. Much of this depends on the developmental stage of the child — younger children don’t often understand death until they are much older.
“Grief is unique to every individual,” she said, “so I don’t think there is any one reaction.”
This response extends past school itself, affecting behavior and disposition, on top of many other noticeable changes. One of the best ways to counteract these transformations is to attempt to find new habits because most, if not all, of the old ones are disrupted by the changes that come after the passing of a family member.
“In general, we have routines – we find them comforting,” Van Drie said. “Finding structure and routine, it helps soothe us.”
These routines have allowed both Lam and Barber to get back into the familiarity of daily life. Barber took time to adjust but is now able to help his dad much more than before, now that his sister is away at college.
“My dad filled both roles for a while, but now we’re kind of evening out,” Barber said.
Lam knows, even though he is now able to live life as close to normal as ever, he will continue to feel his father’s influence later in life, acting as a guide in every decision he makes.
“You’re trying to think about where you’re going to be in the future,” Lam said, “and thinking about those kind of things, it is natural for me to think about what Dad would want me to do. What would he think? What should I do that would make him proud?”