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Daily routine, relationships help teens cope with death

Five years ago, an event shattered the Vanden Hoek family and changed their lives forever.

After Mike Vanden Hoek came home from hunting with his son, Chris, ’03, he fell asleep on the couch while watching TV. However, when Donna tried waking up her husband, she realized he was not breathing and called an ambulance. Mike had died in his sleep at the age of 34.

“At first I felt empty inside because I was a daddy’s girl,” Jennifer Vanden Hoek, ’06, said. “I eventually got over it, but it took time. During the process, I became closer to my brother and mother, and we all helped each to overcome it.”

According to Donna Vanden Hoek, overcoming the grief of a family member’s death is something one cannot easily rise above.

“At first I was in shock,” Donna said. “I just took it a moment at a time because that was all I could really handle. I stayed close by my children, my family, and my friends and prayed a lot with them. God helped me get through it along with a couple of my best friends.”

Losing a family member or a loved one can sometimes cause a person to pull back emotionally and hold in all their grief. On the other hand, many will seek help from a mentor or a friend to express how they feel about the loss.

“Usually when kids come to me and talk with me about one of their parents dying, I sit down and read Psalms 68:5 to them,” Michael Whitford, assistant minister for youth at Peoples Church, said. “I think kids and even adults who lose a loved one should seek comfort from someone who they can trust and someone who can be there for them.”

During the late fall another campus student lost a parent and has dealt with it in his own way.

“It was an instance that I had spent six months to prepare for, so when my dad died it was just a feeling of disbelief with a certain peace to it,” Derrick Lehman, ’04, said. “I went back to school and got into a routine, but I am still numb.”

Lehman’s word of encouragement to people who suffer with a loss would be to “keep going; the world does not stop spinning.”

“When I came back to school after my dad died, I felt like I needed a friend,” Daniel Kessler, ’06, said. “I needed a close friend that I could talk to and share how I felt about the death of my dad and help me to go through it.

When students come back to high school after the loss of a parent, school can be overwhelming. Having a strong friend is important.

“My neighbor, Peter Villalobos, was one of my friends who especially helped me overcome my father’s death,” Kessler said. “We hung out together a lot and he was always there to talk to. His dad was friends with my dad so in some sense his dad was starting to become my dad.”

Whitford agreed and added that people who lose a loved one should not keep it to themselves but talk to a friend or an adult that will sit and listen to them. Students should choose a friend who will not lead them to drugs or alcohol to take away their pain, but who will encourage them with God’s word.

Years later, surviving family members may come upon something that triggers the memories of the lost loved one.

In the fall John Ritter, the father in the sitcom 8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter died. The first episode after the death deals with the family’s feelings about the loss. Throughout the whole episode they come upon personal objects that belong to their dad and it reminds them about him and makes them sad.

“When I was watching the show it reminded me how my family and I felt the same way,” Jennifer said. “The feeling of emptiness that the family in the show felt was the same emptiness that my family and I felt when we lost our dad.”

People differ on how they deal with a death and how they preserve the memory of their lost one.

“I gave my children journals to write in things they remembered about their dad so they wouldn’t forget the memories,” Donna said. “We also put their favorite pictures of themselves with their dad in special picture frames.”

While placing photos on the wall may not the right choice for everyone; some people honor their memories by keeping mementos of their loved one.

“I never really wrote down memories I had with my dad,” Kessler said. “I kept his Vietnam medical kit and his old guitars, which remind me of my dad. My mom and I always go out to dinner on the day he died and watch Star Trek, his favorite series.”

The University of Iowa publishes online a handout outlining mechanisms for those interested in coping with death or grief at

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