The empty chair

Connor Spielmaker

Since August, Spinnaker has reported the deaths of ten students.
Since August, Spinnaker has reported the deaths of ten students. Photo by Jennifer Mello & Connor Spielmaker

Note from the writer: This piece was originally published in the last issue of Spinnaker Magazine. Since that time, another student lost their life. Joey Kawchak, a Junior Psychology major, lost his life on April 6. Joey is the eleventh student.

It’s sometimes a subtle difference. For most, it’s probably a normal day: another pointless lecture, to be spent browsing Amazon, doodling in a notebook, or cramming for the test in your next class.

You’re chewing on your pen when something the professor says catches a moment of your attention, and that’s when you notice it. Maybe it’s in the front row, or maybe the middle, or maybe right in front of you. Wherever it is, it’s there. But it’s empty.

Since August, the Spinnaker has reported on the deaths of ten students within our community.

Ten empty seats. Chairs our classmates sat in. It’s easy to not think about it if you didn’t know that person, and depending on how closely you pay attention, you may not even know they have left this world for another. To you, it may have been merely that seat. But to others, it was a roommate, a friend, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a son, a daughter.

Death defies us. It’s this thing that is so far beyond our control, that it makes people mad. And sad. And confused. Especially when someone goes so young. Why? What’s the point? We can look to faith and religion, or to philosophy, or something else. We can send a prayer, share a moment of silence, start a campaign, try to change something. We can do many things to remember and preserve the legacy of these people. These people who existed.

I think it’s very easy for us, as we begin our entrance to adulthood, to not understand how to cope with tragedy. Sure, many of us have lost a family member or someone older in their years. But the unexpected loss of someone our own age is not only jolting, but confusing. And there never seems to be time. It seems that life just keeps moving on. Assignments to fulfill, jobs to tend to, chapter meetings to sit through, events to attend, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Sometimes you have to find the time for yourself. Especially in times of trouble, when you need a moment, but in general too.

Beyond grieving, though, is moving on. Life does not stop. The assignments will continue to roll in and you still need to put in the applications for the internship that will land you your first real job. You still have to plan your spring break cruise, and coordinate with your friends to get the same trip. You still need to graduate and go on to live your life.

I’ve attended many memorial services since coming to this campus, and all seem to have at least one common take-away: these people lived short lives, yes, but still extraordinary ones. I am constantly moved by the ratio of laughs to tears at such services, to know that our classmates live on in many of us, and leave legacies in those seats. And every seat will of course be filled by a new roster at the start of the next term, but the person who once sat there will always have a spot with the people who knew and loved them best.

I spoke with Dr. Andy King, the Director of the Counseling Center, and he had plenty to say on coping and dealing with death. But there was one thing that stuck with me.

“Death is the reminder that we should be living our life to its fullest. And a lot of times that means going to class, and doing your homework. But sometimes it means hanging out with your friends and having a beer. That’s just as valid.”

So, take that day off. Go watch a sunrise then race across the state and watch it set. Go explore some random sight in Jacksonville. Take a day-trip to Georgia. Sit at home and binge watch a show. Sleep in. Take on a hobby. Learn to play the piano. Take a random class that has nothing to do with your major. Make a new friend. Find a new part of campus to be a part of.

We’ve done our best to tell the stories of ten of our classmates this year. Of those people, I had the privilege to share my Alpha Tau Omega brotherhood with one, and Friday afternoons in class with another. Rest easy, and thank you for allowing us to be a part of your lives.

In memory of…

Andrew J. Swenson

Nicholas A. Hare

Rebecca L. Perry

Keri A. Demott

Nycole S. Branch

Maitland J. Harvey

Laura A. Erdelyi

Jassim T. F. Al-deen

Allison N. Bushey

Elliott J. McArthur

Joseph M. Kawchak