Struggling to cope with loss

It seemed that wherever freshman Susana Fonseca went on campus, classmate Daniel M?ndez was never too far away. Whether roaming around Foggy Bottom or their native Panama City, Panama, it only made sense to see them together.

“I was accustomed to being here every day with him … and suddenly he’s not here,” Fonseca said.

M?ndez, who died in a car accident in Panama on Christmas Eve, is one of four GW students to die in the last four months. For Fonseca, the hardest parts of her day are the constant reminders of her best friend.

She said that losing M?ndez was so difficult she almost stayed in Panama this semester.

“I considered not coming back,” she said. “Everywhere we were, everything we did, reminded me of him.”

Fonseca’s experience is similar to that of countless other GW students who have been affected by the four deaths.

Since the deaths of college-aged students are usually unexpected, they can cause considerable amounts of pain for those close to them.

“Students don’t get ill and die slowly,” said Bob Wilson, assistant director of the University’s Counseling Center. “They’re young and vigorous, and they’re killed on the basis of tragedy, so it’s a real jolt to the system.”

When working with students who are experiencing grief, Wilson said the Counseling Center’s goal is to show that emotions besides sadness are normal and expected.

“Essentially what we are trying to do is recognize and sort though the grief process,” he said.

“We can help them recognize that there are all sorts of reactions to this, but their own personal reaction is what is most important,” he added.

Some grief-stricken students said they found the center’s services helpful. When sophomore Jennifer Dierdorff was found dead Feb. 6 from an apparent suicide, some members of her Alpha Phi sorority turned to the Counseling Center, said junior Dana Rasmussen, the sorority’s president.

“They came and talked to us in groups the day afterwards,” Rasmussen said. “Some people needed to talk to someone outside of their immediate realm.”

Wilson said that when students are suffering from grief, they might feel confused, irritable, tired or unable to focus – all appropriate responses to loss.

Fonseca said she sometimes finds it extremely difficult to study because M?ndez played such a large role in her life at GW.

“The hardest part for me is obviously being here alone and not being able to concentrate in school,” Fonseca said.

Law student Jamie Conn said he was a friend of Chris Bartok’s, who only finished one semester at GW before accidentally drowning in the Potomac River Dec. 19. The two shared an apartment with other law students.

“Our first six months in D.C. was with Chris in our lives, so any story that happened before (the drowning) would have involved Chris,” Conn said. “We still live in the same apartment. There’s still a lot of memories here.”

Sophomore Jamie Mitten said she sometimes feels angry about Philip Augustin’s death, another emotion Wilson said can be associated with grief. Augustin, a sophomore majoring in business, drowned March 27 in the Tidal Basin near the FDR Memorial.

“When I first found out, I was very shocked and angry, and I’m still angry that bad things happen to good people,” she said.

To help deal with grief, those close to the four students who died held well-attended memorial services. Experts said it is beneficial for students to participate in events with others who may be experiencing the same emotions.

“There is something about coming together with that shared feeling … it validates your feelings when others expressing those same feelings are together,” said GW psychology professor Pamela Woodruff, who teaches a course called “Attitudes Toward Death and Dying.”

While the wounds associated with the deaths still seem fresh for some students, the healing process is already well under way for others.

“As time goes on, it gets easier,” Rasmussen said. “It doesn’t mean we forget, but reality starts to set in.”

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