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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Coping with tragedy, one year later

Published: February 17, 2012
Section: Front Page, News

One year after a student suicide rattled the Brandeis community, Feb. 15 holds a new meaning for Manny Zahonet ’14.

On his birthday last year, Zahonet returned to his first-year residence hall to find district attorney investigators questioning students and chaplains escorting others to the Psychological Counseling Center in the early morning hours.

For Zahonet, who used to stay up late studying with Kat Sommers ’14 and sharing soup in the hall lounge, his initial reaction was disbelief and shock.

“I just didn’t want to think so I tried to run as much as I could,” Zahonet said over coffee at Einsteins Thursday afternoon.

The tears of a grieving campus that filled a 400-person vigil in Sherman Function Hall last year were not visible this week. Brandeis has attempted to recover from the tragic winter afternoon last Feb. 15 when Kat Sommers took her own life inside a first-year residence hall.

The death of Sommers, a history major who loved Disney movies and laughter, left a university stricken with grief. For her friends and classmates, the suicide marked a pain that few others could understand.

As a community searched for answers to how a seemingly happy college student took her own life just days before February vacation, her peers faced a struggle for understanding and healing.

“She always made people laugh. I can’t remember not laughing when we were hanging out together,” Zahonet said.

Katharine Glanbock ’14, who lived next door to Sommers said that she will miss most her friend’s patience as a listener and her sense of humor.

“She was the warmest, most patient person I’d ever met, and she always knew how to make you laugh, or feel better about yourself, even when you thought you were miserable or unworthy,” Glanbock wrote in an e-mail. “Her sense of humor was so warm, so thoughtful. You just knew she was genuine.”

Jake Crosby ’11, who shared a history class with Sommers in fall 2010, said that his initial reaction was shock and disbelief.

“Things hit you so quickly, it’s hard to fully accept,” Crosby said in an interview last spring. “My first reaction is, I want to talk to her. I want to say ‘hey Kat, what’s the problem here?’ Everything just seemed perfectly normal. We were going to get back in touch. That was the plan.”

Following the suicide, the university provided an extensive range of resources for students, including extra hours at the counseling center and group therapy sessions in the evenings for students uncomfortable meeting privately with psychologists.

Simon Diamond Cramer ’13, who had just met and began dating Sommers one month before she died, said the community support helped those directly impacted by the tragedy cope with their grief.

“The community outreach after Kat died was probably one of the most important things that kept me going. For the rest of the week, there were people taking care of us (me and Kat’s friends), people we often barely even knew, just to make sure we’d make it through,” Diamond Cramer wrote in an e-mail.

Zahonet said that summer vacation was an especially helpful time to deal with his emotions without the distraction of classes or constant reminders of the scenery at Brandeis.

Unlike others who visited the Psychological Counseling Center, Zahonet said he recognized the values of the services but preferred to work through his emotions by talking about them with his friends.

As Zahonet shuttled between classes and club meetings one day before February break this week, he said students need to keep a perspective on the pressures that seem overwhelmingly important at the time.

“That’s the main problem—how seriously we take every exam or every paper. We’ll be OK. Even with a 2.5 GPA, we’ll be OK,” Zahonet said.

Instead of the campus-wide vigil last year, this week there was a small gathering of students who came together in North Quad to remember Sommers.

“It’s not a burden as much as it used to be. I wish she was still here but I’ve become used to her not being here. I can breathe a lot easier than I used to,” Zahonet said.

Yet, even as her friends begin to accept and deal with life after tragedy, their college years will never be separated from the experience of coping with a loss that even over time still lingers on their minds.

“It’s been an extremely difficult year, and there has been no specific way to go about dealing with it,” Haley Bierman ’14, a friend of Sommers, wrote in an e-mail. “It comes down to getting through each day in the best way you can. Whenever it gets especially difficult, I remember what an extraordinary person she was and remind myself how privileged I was to have been her friend.