UCF students and alumni cope with loss and grief CJ

Natalie Madruga, 24, stares endearingly at a photo of her and her father, Manny, taken before his death. 

Like many people who have dealt with the loss of a parent, UCF graduate student Natalie Madruga handled her father's death by staying busy. She worked extra hours, did volunteer work and said she never gave herself time to breathe.

Madruga, 24-year-old rhetoric and composition student, was devastated when her father, Manny, a criminal prosecutor in their hometown of Key West, Florida, died by suicide in 2016.

In the weeks and months that followed, Madruga said she stayed preoccupied by making empty promises and obligations to friends and school events — anything to avoid the topic or the reality of her father’s death.

"I kept myself really busy," Madruga said. "I said 'yes' to everything, [and] I made millions of empty promises. I tried to be around people at all times just because I was avoiding it. I thought that meant that I was doing okay. It did not mean I was doing okay."

UCF’s Counseling and Psychological Services writes that doing excessive work or going to extremes to avoid thinking about loss are signs someone is facing the death of a loved one and needs support.

In March 2017, four months after her father’s death, Madruga began attending the support group Healing After a Loved One's Suicide, or HALOS, in Orlando. From there, she said she started her grieving process and began to cope.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide increased by 30 percent in the U.S. from 2000 to 2016.

While in HALOS, Madruga said a phrase that helped her begin to accept her father's death was, 'Grief is not your enemy — it’s your companion.'"

Now, she said she leaves photos of her father around her apartment to help her cope, and she listens to a CD he made for her featuring a song called “Never Alone” by Jim Brickman.

Madruga also attends an event in Key West dedicated to her father called the Manny Madruga Domino Tournament. There have been three domino tournaments, and she's been to two. The event, which is hosted by the the Rotary Club of Sunset Key West, originated from one of her father's ideas to raise scholarship money for Key West High School seniors interested in law.

In addition to raising scholarship money, the tournament also donates funds to suicide awareness and prevention programs, according to a Facebook post by the Rotary Club of Sunset Key West. The annual event started January 2017.

Occasionally, at the end of the event, Madruga said she leaves her father's favorite drink — a Long Island Iced Tea — on a table with his name, birth date and the date of his death.

“I want him to be remembered more for what he did when he lived than how he died,” Madruga said. “But I don’t want people to forget how he died either. I don’t want it to be the only thing in the picture, but I also don’t want it to be erased.”

Sarah Mouradian is another member of the community of UCF students who has faced coping with grief after the death of a parent. Mouradian graduated from UCF with a bachelor’s degree in writing and rhetoric in 2018 — only months after her mother, Linda, died of a stroke stemming from sepsis. Mouradian had already lost her father, Greg, at the age of 5 in 2002 due to complications from multiple sclerosis.

Even after her father's death during her childhood, Mouradian said she had family members around her to provide memories and remind her of her father's love. Mouradian said while it was tough adjusting to everyday life after her mother's death, she was able to accept it in time. After losing her mom, she said it helped to have people surrounding her who encouraged her to talk about it.

"Thankfully, I have my friend [Emily Auschwitz] and her parents," Mouradian said. "They were really supportive, and even though I don't have any family down here [because] all my family is still in Michigan, they're like my family." 

According to the CAPS website, receiving support from those in your life such as family, friends or a religious group can help with the healing process. 

CAPS Associate Director Teresa Michaelson-Chmelir said connecting with a friend or doing activities that can bring happiness are forms of self-care, which she said she encourages during the grieving process.

"It could be anything from being involved in some physical activities to someone who's more of an artist," Michaelson-Chmelir said. "Maybe it could be creative expression through art and music, movement even, so I would encourage the person as they are processing their grief and loss to engage in self-care and whatever that self-care might look like to them."

To cope, Mouradian said she keeps items of sentimental value from her mother, such as a box of soaps and perfumes and a Minnie Mouse T-shirt.

Walt Disney World itself is home to a special memorial for Mouradian's mother that Mouradian visits every month. She and her mother had a photo of them together etched onto the Leave a Legacy monument at Epcot in 2006. While the Leave a Legacy program was discontinued in 2007, Mouradian's photo with her mother remains on display as a reminder of happy times.

Mouradian also credits her Catholic faith — which she said her mother instilled in her — with helping during moments of sadness.

“One thing that I’m really grateful for to her is her faith that she had," Mouradian said. "She set a really good example for me. Even though I'll feel sad right away, I know I’ll see her again, and I can still talk to her because I know she'll still hear me ... so that kind of helps, too. Knowing that that’s not the end of her. There’s hope to be reunited again.”

For students coping with death, CAPS offers a counseling group called Grief and Loss. According to the CAPS website, students within the Grief and Loss group are given a safe and supportive space to talk about their loved ones and learn ways of responding to loss while going through the grieving process.

According to a document from CAPS about how to cope with grief, it’s important for people coping with loss to grieve at own their pace, while others should understand that everyone’s unique type of grief deserves respect. A person is free to express their emotions by doing anything from talking to journaling to crying.

“A person has their own unique and individualized way of processing grief," Michaelson-Chmelir said. "No two people are alike. Each person will have their own journey.”

Within the healing journey, Michaelson-Chmelir said that it’s encouraged for individuals to remember their loved ones however they choose to do so.

“If they want to remember the good thoughts [they can]" she said. "Sometimes even the sad memories are part of the story [and] part of the relationship they had."

Michaelson-Chmelir also said although the pain of losing a loved one can lighten over time, loss is a feeling that never really fades.

“The person will continue to experience the loss throughout their life, but the pain will lessen over time,” Michaelson-Chmelir said. “There’s no way that person will ever fully get over that, but they will as the years pass.”

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