Monday, June 2, 2014


Originally written Wednesday, April 23, 2014.

Yesterday, Tuesday, April 22, 2014, a VMI senior took his life. This marks the third student death in Lexington this year. The first, Kelsey Durkin, a Washington and Lee undergraduate senior, lost her life in a drunk driving accident December 3, 2013. The second was Lara Gass, a third year law student at W&L who was killed in a car accident on I-81 on March 18, 2014. The most recent was Eric Alter, who was supposed to graduate, commission as a second lieutenant in the Marines, and get married to a brilliant W&L senior in the next two months. It has truly been a tragic year for students in Lexington. Each of the university communities has experienced a great and untimely loss.

Fortunately, we are all members of a strong community. Divisions and differences may exist from day to day, but we all come together in times of crisis. That is the beauty of humanity. As I reflect on each of these deaths individually and as a whole, I do not wish to say that any loss is more or less tragic than another. It is impossible to put a measure on the worth and value of any human life. Each loss brings with it certain questions and misunderstandings. At the heart of this is "Why?" Why would this happen to Eric, Lara, or Kelsey? How could God/a superior being/the universe let this happen? How could anyone deserve to experience this? At the end of the day, I don't know. I cannot know. No one can.

Death, loss, grief is so difficult to deal with, particularly in the case of young people. Definitely in the case of suicide. As a part of the grieving process, we can ask ourselves, "What if?" What if I could have done more to prevent it? We can torture ourselves with these two words.

As can be expected, I was most affected by Kelsey's death, and I still am. I took some time to mourn Lara's passing, but it did not severely affect my functioning. I simply did not have a connection to her. I was in shock and numb upon hearing of Eric's death. I had heard of suicides at VMI before, but not someone my year. Not someone my friends knew. Not someone who was engaged to a fellow senior psychology major. Not someone who seemed to have so much to live for. Each of these students had so much going for them. Each was set to graduate with me in May. Each life was cut so short.

Up to this point in my life, I feel that I have dealt with plenty of death, too much in my opinion. However, I know that it is only going to continue. Such is life...and death. It never gets any easier. It never makes any more sense. How do you continue to try to make sense of the nonsensical?

Interestingly enough, God always finds a way to make the Spirit's presence known. Sunday was Easter, and I went to two church services. My dad gave a wonderful Easter sermon on not living in fear, despite the fact that we have so much we can be afraid of. This is a sentiment that I have been fortunate enough to experience and learn from both of my parents in all of my life experiences so far. We then went to Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church, my home church for the second service. Our interim pastor, Bill Wood, gave a different sermon that focused on 1 Corinthians 15:12-17. He emphasized that if Christ were not raised, then all preaching and faith is in vain, and we are still living in sin. The tone of his message was a bit more somber than what I expected from an Easter sermon. He mentioned two stories of pastors who had family members die unexpectedly and their reactions to those deaths. I had come to the service expecting a more optimistic sermon about the joy of Jesus's resurrection. Little did I know that the sermon would thankfully stick with me and help me to process the events of this week.

Today, I had the great fortune to visit Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. It was an absolutely wonderful time of learning, discernment, and getting to know the welcoming community. I was able to participate in their weekly community worship service. It was a vibrant service with a great variety of music and a powerful sermon given by a graduating student. He began with a metaphor of graves as books. We try to fill something as huge as a life into a small grave and a whole story into the pages of a book. As we read books, we become invested in the characters and eagerly turn the pages to read more of the story. However, as we near the end, we realize the inevitable end of the characters' lives when the pages end, and we place the book on a shelf somewhere. Maybe we come back to flip through the book in remembrance of those characters' adventures, but it is only a memory. Much in the way that we visit the gravestones of loved ones to remember their lives and legacies.

Mark's gospel "ends" (This is up for scholarly debate. At Union, apparently Frances says it ends at verse 8.) with Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Salome afraid after finding the tomb empty and not telling anyone of Jesus's resurrection. His explanation for Mark ending here is that he acknowledges that it is scary to deal with Jesus's resurrection. Mark does not give us that resolution for a reason (so others had to fill in the gaps to give the resolution because we can't handle not having closure). He then challenged the students, staff, and faculty to face the fear of the resurrection, to keep alive the Easter story into the Easter season that only begins with Easter Sunday. It is our job to continue to show the joy of Christ's resurrection throughout the world after the church service ends every spring. All of these messages brought together in these few days have truly given me the tools to be able to process Eric's death.

One of the most memorable sermons I have ever heard was given by Laura Smith Conrad many years ago. She challenged us to treat every person we met as though they were Jesus. See the face of Jesus in all those around you. If only we did that, how this world would be different. If we reacted to every death the way that we react to Jesus's death and resurrection, it wouldn't make it so much easier, but it may be a more positive coping mechanism. If we learned from their legacy and lessons they taught us and told the world how they changed our lives for the better. Life goes on, and we should remember them by remembering and living out the lessons they taught us, not by dwelling on what we cannot change. We have hope and joy from having faith that we will see them again.

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