BYU student faces the challenges of school and his mother’s illness

Mindy Harris passed away from a terminal brain tumor in September 2015.  (Jeremy Harris)

Recent BYU graduate Jeremy Harris dealt with tragedy as he tackled his final semesters.

Harris’ mother, Mindy Harris, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor in July 2014, right before Harris’ senior year. She passed away in September 2015, five months after Harris graduated from BYU.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen next,” Harris said about learning of his mother’s diagnosis. “We didn’t know if she was going to survive a long time or if it was going to happen quick.”

Harris, who was going into his senior year, had to face the decision of whether or not he would stay in school or go back home to take care of his parents. He and his father ultimately decided that Harris would stay in school and go back and forth between Utah and his home in Colorado, which he was able to do about six times over the school year.

The decision to stay in school was hard for Harris. He was going through his most difficult semester at BYU as his mother was dealing with the most difficult part of her illness.

“It was hard for me to come back to school after having been at home,” Harris said. “I just really wanted to be there with her, but I knew I had to be at school.”

College can be a difficult time. Losing a parent, or having a parent with a terminal illness in college can make it even harder for students.

Michael Buxton is a counselor at BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services Center. He said going through something like this is particularly hard for college students.

“Sometimes that parent is the source of financial support as well as relational or emotional support going through a period like transitioning into adulthood,” Buxton said. “So especially the more that person was a role model for you, the more you’re going to experience the loss, and you may feel very disoriented.”

Buxton said there is no right way to act when students have lost a parent or have a parent going through a serious illness and that the grieving process is very important. He said it’s also important that students understand the difference between the psychological and spiritual processes of grief.

He said sometimes people like to use gospel answers to console students who have lost parents, but people who have experienced tremendous loss can feel bothered by gospel answers that are intended to help.

“Just because we may have the gospel doesn’t mean that we are not going to grieve,” Buxton said.

Buxton was quick to point out that while students who go through this may stay in school, they can’t deny the grieving process.

Jeremy Harris’ mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in July 2014 and passed away in Sept. 2015. He stayed in school throughout her illness. (Jeremy Harris)

“You can’t shortchange grief; it will come back to you,” he said. “For some students, that is going to be reducing their academic load, and that’s perfectly okay.”

Jon Cox of BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services Center agreed that going through a trial like Harris’ can be extremely difficult for college students.

“If you’re experiencing a lot of pressures and stress from school and also trying to go through the grieving process, that can be pretty hard to manage for sure,” Cox said.

Cox explained there are a lot of services available to BYU students going through this kind of struggle. The BYU Counseling and Psychological Services center offers both individual therapy and group therapy.

Harris comes from a very tight-knit family of five kids. He said he turned mostly to his family and close friends when his mother got sick. He didn’t go to BYU services or look for outside support.

“As far as a support group or school therapy, I didn’t really pursue that route,” Harris said. “I kind of wish I would have, but we just stayed within the family and relied on each other for support.”

For other students dealing with similar issues, Harris said it is up to them to decide how they are going to handle it, and not everyone will make the same decision. He suggested students should console with their families and do what is right for them.

“As far as staying in school, I think for some people it may be appropriate to leave school and go focus on that and come back,” Harris said. “In my case, I think the right decision was to stay in school, and I had a lot of incentive to do that.”

Harris said another big source of comfort for him during his trial was his faith. He explained what ultimately got him through this trial emotionally was being comforted by the fact that he knew he would see his mother again one day.

“Death is not the end,” he said. “That is not going to ultimately keep our family apart.”

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