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Insight: Grieving the loss of a college mentor

The hard-won lesson I have learned from grief: Relationships matter most


"It is hard to imagine our mentors as fragile, fallible creatures. So often, they are fixed icons in our minds, and somehow, we believe they will always be there. They won't."

Content warning: This article contains mentions of death, grieving and other sensitive issues. For additional resources, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 800-662-4357 or visit SMHSA's website

Over the last few weeks, I have been preoccupied with the idea of mortality. I am deeply unsettled by the idea that one day, I could part from a friend forever with so much left unsaid. Such a sudden and untimely loss is always jarring, especially when losing a mentor.

This realization is not spontaneous or without cause. I, and the ASU community, have recently suffered a great loss.

Cindy Eilts, student services coordinator associate at the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, passed away this semester leaving behind many friends and loved ones. I am among those left to mourn her loss.

"That smile of hers lit up the whole room," said Terri Miller, a principal lecturer at the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. "Her tiny little feet filled very big shoes."

Cindy was my boss. For over a year, I worked under her care and gentle guidance as one of her student workers performing office duties, answering phones and helping students and professors. Under her tutelage, I learned the ins and outs of office life, and more importantly, I was given a nurturing and safe environment in which to learn and grow as a young professional.

"She was one of the most giving people I've ever known," said Diane Richardson, a senior lecturer for the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. "She was just always so energetic and helpful."

I would be lying if I claimed to know Cindy as well as some of her other student workers and colleagues. They are many, and they loved her dearly, as she loved them. Only being an employee for a year, I did not get the opportunity to forge as deep a bond.

"I never felt like I couldn't ask her a question or couldn't approach her," said Emmely Rocha Acero, a senior studying nursing and one of Cindy's student workers. "Cindy was one of the people who supported me and believed in me."

After attending her funeral service, I began to see Cindy in a different light, the way everyone else in her life saw her. Her sisters gave her eulogy, and a close friend sang a heartfelt song. Members of her church congregation testified to her character, and I felt as if I were being introduced to a stranger. 

"She made me believe in the good of humanity," said Tanner Barnes, a senior studying communication and another of Cindy's student workers. 

Cindy's loss has not only been felt by those closest to her, but the entirety of ASU's mathematics department. 

"If you lose a member of your family, the family isn’t the same anymore," said Rehn Kovacic, an academic advisor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. 

After hearing praise about Cindy from so many, I was overcome with regret at not having known Cindy as well as I could have, and the knowledge that I could never rectify my mistake. I can never go back and deepen our bond, and it is hard to accept. 

I wish I had more time with Cindy. Still, time is not to blame. The walls I have built around myself are high and well fortified. I only allowed so much closeness in my relationship with Cindy, as with everyone else. Sometimes I could tell she wished to bridge the gap, but being distant is my default setting, and we remained cordial. It pains me now to admit this, but like so many things in life, it is an unchangeable truth. 

So, I decided to write, in repayment for all she did for me and so many others. It is the only way I know how to make amends, and maybe share a lesson or two along the way.

The awakening I have had as a result of this loss has been painful and enlightening. Cindy Eilts was a beautiful human being, and an integral member of our community. She was also an important part of my life for the short time I knew her. I wish I had appreciated having such a great mentor when it mattered most. 

The hard-won lesson I have learned from grief, which I offer to all other college students is this: Relationships matter most. Above deadlines, careers, or plans for the future, love your people. Let down your guard and let them in. It is better to grieve someone because you knew them well than because you didn’t know them enough. Life is too short for high walls.

It is hard to imagine our mentors as fragile, fallible creatures. So often, they are fixed icons in our minds, and somehow, we believe they will always be there. They won't. Appreciate and learn from them while you can. If we take their lessons and their essence with us, they are never really gone. 

Edited by Claire van Doren, Piper Hansen and Luke Chatham

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