Monday, December 3, 2012

Surviving death

Lindsey Treffry | blot

Everybody dies.

“Death sucks no matter what,” University of Idaho student Britnee Packwood said. “Death is the worst thing that is on this planet.”

Amrah Canul | Blot

Packwood knows death up close. She has since May 16, 2011.

“My dad was 61 when he passed away,” she said. “We knew we were gonna lose him earlier than a lot of other kids.”

Packwood was in eighth grade the first time her dad went to the hospital for a heart attack. Doctors estimated he had two years to live. The attack was followed by years of heart complications, more heart attacks and congestive heart failure. Her dad even had an attack in the left anterior descending artery, known as the Widow Maker.

Sharon Fritz, a licensed psychologist and professor, works at the UI Counseling Center and helps students deal with grief.

“At my age, you’re expecting to see friends sick and grandparents dying,” Fritz said. “You don’t expect it in the 18 to 25 group range, but I see it a lot. In my caseload, at least half a dozen a semester.”

Nationally, personal experience facing death is not uncommon among young people. According to National College Health Assessment surveys gathered in Fall 2011, 15.5 percent of students had experienced the death of a family member or friend. At UI, 15.8 percent of students have experienced the same.

In spring 2011, Packwood’s parents took a trip to Houston. One day, her dad wasn’t feeling well and called her from the hotel.

“I had probably had the weirdest conversation I had ever had with my father,” Packwood said.

Out of nowhere, he asked what she was going to do if they weren’t on the same “time zone clock” anymore.

“Who are we going to call all the time? … No matter who you are, where you are or what you’re doing, I’m always going to be with you,” he told her.

She didn’t think much of it.

“I thought he was doing his whole Dad thing,” Packwood said. “When they got back from Lewiston the next day, I called my mom to ask if their flight went OK. I heard him in the background. He said, ‘No I talked to her yesterday. Just make sure she knows I love her.’”

It was only a couple of hours later that her parents were in an ambulance to the hospital — for the last time. Packwood and her sister later followed.

“We said goodbye, kissed our dad and left,” she said.

Soon after, he passed.

The sisters had last heard that their dad was feeling better. Packwood’s mom returned home to bring them the news.

“We all come in the living room. And all she can say is ‘He’s gone,’” Packwood said. “She is blubbering. My sister starts screaming and bawling her eyes out. And I’m standing there holding a grown woman and a junior in high school in my arms and having them cry on my shoulder. I’m emotionless. I don’t know what to do. I’m more concerned with them instead of myself at the time.”

Fritz said the grieving process is complicated when a person knows they are dying and the end comes suddenly.

“People deal with it different ways when it comes,” Fritz said. “When it is sudden, they either didn’t have a chance to prepare for it or understand it. (It’s a sense of) lack of preparedness.”

In cases like Packwood’s, Fritz said the stages of grief are dragged out more.

“There is a sense of shock.” Fritz said. “It may take a longer time (to grieve). The peaks and valleys are more intense … more ebbs and flows.”

Packwood said knowing he would die soon was worse.

“To lose someone suddenly is awful. It’s terrible,” Packwood said. “But to have to see somebody in a prolonged state of deterioration and just losing it, I think it’s worse. A little piece of your soul gets eaten away, knowing there is nothing you can do.”

She helped her mom make phone calls to family members, and the next morning departed for a UI Conservation Social Sciences field studies trip.

In the Mammoth area of Yellowstone National Park, Packwood spotted a moose.

“I just sat on a rock next to it,” she said. “... I looked up and I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna be OK. Things are gonna be fine.’ Maybe that was my moment of acceptance.”

The trip ended, she returned home and helped her mom with funeral home planning, transferring the body and figuring out funeral expenses.

“The weirdest thing for me was he was near his chair,” she said. “But he was in a really tiny box next to his chair. I thought, ‘So this is what’s left — a tiny little box of ashes.’”

Those ashes, later sealed in a vault, were surrounded by heirlooms that Packwood and her sister placed inside.

“There was a little wooden box in a bag and the bag wasn’t closed all the way,” she said. “I’m like putting stuff in there. I move the bag, and it’s closed but it wasn’t closed (all the way). I was like, ‘I have my father on my hands.’ I laughed. It was the first time I had truly laughed in such a long time … My sister and I were gut rolling.”

Packwood said returning to UI solidified her belief that her dad wanted the family to keep living.

“That was really when I accepted what it was for what it was,” she said. 

They buried him in a family plot in Montana, where Packwood was raised and where her parents met.

“And if there is a cool part to this, I’m pretty certain about this — at the exact time (of my dad’s death), the chime went off that a baby was born,” Packwood said. “My mom said ‘I didn’t have the heart to go down there, but if it’s a boy — oofh, those parents are going to need some help.’”

Packwood said the death of her father has opened her eyes and pushed her to live more.

“Don’t forget that there is always someone who has a shoulder,” she said. “Don’t forget that you need to do what you need to do for yourself and don’t forget to live. If you have to take a month to just let it all out, go for it. But go back to work. Go back to school. Go back to having girls’ night. Whatever it is. Normalcy, at first, (will) feel weird but it’ll get better.”

Fritz agreed.

“We tell our students to solicit support,” she said. “Death makes you depressed and you want to pull away. But you have to tell your friends, ‘I need you to call me, I need you to take me out.’”
Packwood said there isn’t an easy way to deal with death.

“It’s death. It happens,” she said. “You can’t revel in it and you can’t live in it … you can’t stay there forever. You gotta move on.” 

As seen in December 2012 issue of blot magazine.

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