“Why are you so quiet today?”
Silence ensues and the question is left hanging in the air. Averting his eyes, Stephen Martindale (11) does not say anything.
On the outside, he seemed fine. Martindale went to his classes, took notes and filled out worksheets. No one, neither teachers nor peers, could have guessed the feelings of numbness and isolation that he bottled up inside him. Close friends were unaware that he was quietly grieving for the death of his grandmother; their attempts to learn about his sudden muteness blocked by a wall of silence.
Martindale had always understood that death is a natural and inevitable aspect of life, yet he had never needed to accept it.
Although he had always been aware of his grandmother’s battle with lung cancer, Martindale and his family had nonetheless found themselves shocked when she died. Upon her death, Martindale searched for ways to cope with his grief by taking the time to relive his memories of her.
“I wrote down some things that I remembered about my grandmother, and looked at photos,” Martindale said. “I remember how we really connected and we would always talk and she’d tell me stories.”
There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. According to Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Michelle Vercelli, the length of time, if any, a person dwells in each phase differs from person to person. In many cases, a person’s rationality and emotional stability are compromised because he or she is so caught up in the tragedy.
“In many cases, people don’t know why they are feeling angry or sad [after a person they know dies],” Vercelli said. “[When it comes to grieving], every teen is different. [How they cope with death] depends on the stability of their home, support network, peers and family, as well as the level of their self-esteem.”
Teenagers who already have suffered from serious abandonment issues prior to a loved one’s death are also more likely to struggle with finding closure, according to Vercelli.
While Martindale had a strong support system at home and at school, he still felt uncomfortable about sharing his feelings with others, often going several days without talking to anyone, not even his family or friends. During this time, Martindale’s relationship with other people was not the only thing that was hurt by his grandmother’s death; the temporary isolation that Martindale put himself through triggered a dramatic lack of motivation and focus in everyday aspects of his life that he always had excelled at, including his academic performance.
“My grandmother’s death definitely weakened my friendships for a couple of days,” Martindale said. “I was less involved in clubs and activities. [Death] didn’t exactly affect the quality of my schoolwork, but I didn’t really try as hard … and I was pretty isolated.”
Martindale is only one of the many other TPHS students who had been traumatized by the death of a close family member or friend.
Among TPHS students and staff, Nov. 16, 2014 is a day that will be remembered for the loss of one of the school’s most beloved and respected coaches, Scott Chodorow, who had also served as ASB adviser for 10 years.
Juliette Dicken (12), who was a freshman when Chodorow died, distinctly remembers the heavy impact her former coach’s death had on her and the rest of her teammates.
“It was really sad,” Dickens said. “He was the father figure that held the whole team together. Everyone thought he was invincible and when he did eventually lose his battle with cancer, everyone was like ‘Oh my gosh. What now?’”
Although four years have passed since Chodorow’s death, the school has not forgotten Chodorow and his legacy, least of all his family, which includes his daughter, TPHS sophomore, Jordan. At work, Coach Jon Moore is reminded of his fellow coach, grieving and reminiscing about coping with the loss of his friend.
“Just thinking of good things he did made me smile, how kind he was and how much fun he had doing his job and being a coach,” Moore said. “Like one game during a football game a streaker ran on the field during cheerleading and he had to run out there and tackle him because he didn’t want anything to mess with his cheerleaders.”
After the initial shock of Chodorow’s death, the student body began the grieving process.
“I think it’s very important for people to let the teen go through their natural process and not hurry them, letting them talk about how it feels and not judging anything they’re feeling,” Vercelli said. “Just letting them go those emotions that are very natural and normalizing, not minimizing, but normalizing the stages of grief.”
According to Coach John Olive, who knew Scott Chodorow through their mutual activities of sports and ASB, “the biggest thing is that it’s a part of life. Our passing is a part of life, and we’ve got to understand that that’s the eventuality and it goes at different times for different people. And the second thing would be to seek help if you need it.”
Whether it be to help with the loss of a peer or a death in the family, TPHS counselors are always available to help students through the complex and emotional process of coping with grief.
“[TPHS counselors] are really just there to be an open, supportive ear, try to offer some suggestions [or] some support, guide the student, but really just be there for whatever that student might need,” principal Rop Coppo said.
Further into the psychology behind the experiences of grief is the idea that while trauma can be deeply impactful, closure and regrowth are not impossible.
“We’re survivors. We have to move past it. We have to keep going. But that doesn’t mean that that void left by a person is ever going to be forgotten,” Vercilli said. “The raw emotion isn’t going to be there anymore but the sadness will, and that’s okay.”
While Martindale had to cope with the pain of his grandmother’s death, it also changed his perspective on the nature of life and the inevitability of death. Over time, he was able to find closure and regain the strength to return to his life before his grandmother’s death.
“Emotionally, [grieving] helped,” Martindale said. “It helped me become stronger.”
Going through the daily motions of life helped Martindale find normalcy after his loss.
“Schoolwork actually did distract from just thinking about my grandmother the entire time and so did swimming. It actually helped me to do other stuff,” Martindale said.
But Martindale attributes his sense of closure to the extra time he had to fully process his grandmother’s death.
“I probably wouldn’t have been able to process it [today] as well because I would be too distracted with classes and everything,” Martindale said. “It was actually better that it happened back then … I was still able to grieve and find closure.”
Martindale has since regained his voice, the muteness and isolation replaced with acceptance and regrowth as time and support have healed him.