How a campus community heals after the death of a student
No words. PLNU professor Montague Williams repeated this sentiment throughout his homily that no words could encapsulate where everyone found themselves. Under strings of lights that reached across the vaulted ceilings of Normal Heights United Methodist Church stood PLNU professors, students and alumni. They gathered last Friday night to mourn the loss of a person they loved so much, Dellon Sanders, who graduated this past May.
Above the arch-ways of the church, candid images of Dellon slid over the wall as a playlist of relaxed indie music echoed in the hall. Alumni embraced one another and exchanged casual greetings.
Outside the church, the evening air was cold and clouds lingered in the damp sky. The somber mood was underscored by Dellon’s friends and professors reading poetry, sharing stories and expressing their feelings of loss.
“I don’t think it’s possible to adequately put in words the effect being around him had…When he was younger he would be talking about something he was excited about and be so full of energy he would have a hard time putting it in words.”
Dellon’s older brother, Dwight Sanders, wrote this in a Facebook post on Friday, Oct. 12, the evening of Dellon’s funeral in Greenville, IL. He began the long post by acknowledging the circumstances of his younger brother’s death.
In a phone interview with The Point, Anthony Brooks, the Bond County Coroner in Illinois, said that Dellon Sanders died in an undetermined manner at 9:15 p.m. at the Sanders’ family home on Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018. Brooks said he is not classifying the case as a suicide or an accidental death because there is not enough information to adequately determine the cause of death. Sgt. Scott Workman of the Greenville Police Department said in a phone interview that they have no evidence to suspect this death was a homicide.
Dwight’s Facebook post says that although the report listed the cause of death as inconclusive, his family has looked into the matter and said, “it appears to have been intentional.” Dwight said that Dellon’s death comes exactly two months after the unexpected death of his 25-year-old sister, Loralyn Sanders, who died of a heart condition. Dellon Sanders was 22 years old.
“Dellon didn’t take his own life, mental illness took Dellon from us,” Dwight’s post stated.
Dr. Sheila Thomas, a psychiatrist and resident at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, said that the most common time for males to encounter issues with mental health is during their early 20s, while females typically show signs in their late 20s. According to the National Institution of Mental Health, “nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness (44.7 million in 2016).” They also reported that young adults between the ages of 18-25 years old had the highest prevalence of any mental illness compared to the other age groups they surveyed.
“We didn’t want to believe, or could believe that our Dellon could have done this,” said Dwight in a phone interview with The Point.
Thomas, who is also a family friend of the Sanders’, said it is important to remember that when we look at mental health, we often forget that the brain is an organ too; we need to separate the notion that our brain is aligned with our character. Dwight said that just like his sister Loralyn’s heart failed, “the complex organ of his [Dellon’s] brain failed him.”
The people who knew Dellon personally say they will not remember him for the circumstances of his death.
The people who knew Dellon well would tell you funny stories about his quirky habits or recount one of his many long-winded philosophical conversations. Many of these anecdotes ended with the person saying: “That was just so Dellon,” or he said this in a very “Dellon- esque” manner.
While social media can only tell you so much, the pictures on Dellon’s Facebook page show him with his wavy brown hair pushed back, sporting a light beard, sometimes wearing glasses and either a thoughtful expression or a broad grin. But, if you saw Dellon walking around campus, some things never changed.
Professors, friends and family all say that they never saw him without a book in hand–often times he would spend hours in the caf just reading. Some say he never ate a “full” meal as he consistently brought pocket-fulls of random snacks, like broccoli, that he would plop on his desk. Senior philosophy major Kelly Ng says that she remembers Dellon always carrying around a particularly unique mug that contrasted his clean aesthetic. One day, his friend Conner Carlson came to class and gave him a mug that he made specially for him in ceramics, and while their friends joked about the “ugly” homemade mug, Dellon cherished it.
“He deeply cared about the people that were around him,” said Ng. “And, because somebody took the time to make something for him, he cherished that [mug] and didn’t want to let go of that.”
Senior Leeya Appleby, came to know Dellon only a year ago and said she feels like he significantly affected her life in that short period of time. She credits Dellon for convincing her to add a philosophy major onto her psychology major during one of their many conversations about life. In a discussion that illustrated both Dellon’s quirky and sincere sensibilities, she remembers Dellon saying he wanted to get two tattoos: a chicken and the word “Amen.”
She said he wanted the chicken tattoo, “just ‘cuz he liked chickens” and as she smiled at the memory of this thought, Appleby said she’s not sure if he ended up getting either one. Appleby was also in Concert Choir with him and she was not the only one who praised Dellon’s vocal ability.
PLNU professor of philosophy Heather Ross was Dellon’s adviser and said that he had a deep desire to learn, which drove him to excel in everything he tried–and he was constantly trying new things.
Dellon studied abroad for a semester at Oxford University, and during graduation, he received an academic award recognizing his philosophical studies from the PLNU School of Theology and Christian Ministry. Across the board, people classified Dellon as a gifted “thinker.”
Dwight said that Dellon was deeply cerebral, and that his brother was wrestling with many transitional aspects of adulthood as well as the sudden loss of their sister. During this time, Dwight said that there was a point when Dellon’s, “mind betrayed him.”
No words. What spoke instead were the acts of community and solidarity that occur in times of sorrow. On Tuesday, Oct. 9, Ross canceled class and together with Dr. Rob Thompson, transformed the Wesleyan Center into a space for students to mourn. They filled the room with comfy chairs, blankets, pillows and ordered Olive Garden food for students as they owed in and out all day.
“We just met and cried and shared stories and pictures of Dellon,” said Appleby. “It’s such a weird time. You’re crying because you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh my friend just died,’ and then you remember memories of this friend and like, you laugh. But then you are sad again because you realize that the only reason you are remembering them, thinking about them and talking about how they’ve shaped you, or the significance of their life is because they’re gone. So it’s just an interesting wave of emotions… and how different marks of finality progressively made it worse.”
No words. During the memorial service, Williams preached that as much as we try to make sense of a situation of loss, “this is a moment when the sighs” — he breathed deeply– “and the moans become truth. God’s promise to us is not that we will nd a map to why things happen, but to find ourselves in a community of God.”
At a small school like PLNU, the loss of any person sends ripples through the tight-knit campus. Professors and students get to know each other in classes sometimes with as few as 10 people for multiple hours a week. Dave Adey, a professor in the art department said that over the years he has gone to his students’ weddings, held their babies, gone to the same church and seen them rise as artists.
Adey didn’t know Dellon personally, but he is familiar with the experience of losing a student. In recent years, his department has suffered the loss of three former students. One of these former students, Matthew “Matt” Mahoney, 28, passed away unexpectedly due to a heart condition on Jan. 25, 2017. Adey said it is something he still is dealing with.
“Whenever I see a piece of art or something that reminds me of Matt, I text his parents to let them know I am thinking of him,” Adey said. “This is not something that I will do just in the aftermath of the loss, but something I hope to keep doing 10 years from now.”
He said that people often shy away from talking about tough topics such as death in any form. However, he believes that as a community we should be allowed to share these stories with each other.
“It’s almost more painful not to talk about the loss or act like it never happened and not think about it,” Adey said. “But, I have chosen to remember and talk about Matt as often as I can. Because, I can tell you that his parents are thinking about him every day.”
While there are no words that can explain Dellon’s death, Dwight said that his family chose to be open about the circumstances and what they see as someone they loved who wrestled with mental illness.
“It’s just been incredible to kind of see how God has been working and… redeeming that story and giving incredible meaning and hope to a seemingly awful, hopeless thing you know,” Dwight said. “That’s been giving me a lot of peace and reassurance. Just watching our amazing Dellon, whose joyfulness, quietness of spirit and amazing personality ended in such an awful way, but is still being redeemed and touching so many people…who would have never known him otherwise and get to be touched by his story.”
Thomas, the psychiatrist, said that very few families in the U.S. are not impacted by a loved one having some form of mental illness. Having conversations about mental illness helps break the stigma that oppresses everyone involved. According to the Fall 2017 National College Health Assessment survey taken by PLNU undergraduate students, 6.8 percent of the total students surveyed responded that they “seriously considered suicide” within the last 12 months.
“There are many Dellons out there with a smile on their face, who have a lot of similar feelings as him, who are not vocal about it,” said Dwight’s wife, Ashley Sanders. “So for the people having those feelings, let’s break that cycle. Our hope is that people will talk about it and remember you are not alone in this, you are not the only one with a struggle and for Dellon’s life not to end in death for nothing.”
No words can encapsulate the loss of Dellon Sanders, but as a community, we can search for the words that will shed light.
Thompson, one of his professors, read a poem at the memorial service. The poem, written by Dellon was called, “On Willie Jennings.” As he read these words, the downpour of rain roared outside.
“This is a hard thing to write about […] The proper response to these words lives closer to the words themselves where they reverberate in my mind…”
With each line, the rain came harder.
“ …they are not deformed and diluted by the written attempt to encapsulate them, set down and once and for all put to rest.”
“The proper response lives closer to the words themselves […] far away in space or time but near to us in place, a place you are currently sharing with me.”
Ross followed by reading, “When Great Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou. Then, the steady beat of the storm tapered off as Dellon’s words drifted away.
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.