They fought because he started smoking cigarettes again.
On a Thursday afternoon, Ting Zhao’s boyfriend abruptly left their neighboring rooms on the second floor of Miami University’s Hillcrest Hall. He took her student ID card with him, allowing him access to her room when he was ready to return. Ting and her boyfriend swapped cards regularly. They lived in the same building, but, this way, they could be more accessible to one another.
The 19-year-old didn’t think much of her boyfriend’s disappearance. This had happened before. Usually, he cooked and brought back whatever food he made — like the dumplings they prepared together in their residence hall’s kitchen. The food reminded them of being back home: Ting in Beijing and her boyfriend in Seoul, South Korea.
Ting’s long black hair swung in her thin face as she turned on her favorite Korean drama and waited for him to return.
Hours passed. Eventually, there was a knock on the door of her dorm room. Ting knew it wasn’t her boyfriend. He would have used her ID to get into the room.
When Ting opened the door, a solemn police officer stood before her. The spring rain had left slick drops on his uniform.
The officer held Ting’s student ID card in his hand. He asked if it belonged to her, and then he asked if she knew where her boyfriend had gone.
Ting didn’t know, but the policeman seemed to. Were they testing her, to see how much she knew? What weren’t they telling her?
It was March 24, 2016. Ting’s boyfriend was MinGi Kang, and he would not come home.
Growing up, Annie Rumsey spent every summer at Clear Lake, in Fremont, Indiana, with her family — an hour drive from her home in Fort Wayne, Ind. In the summers, Annie babysat for the different families around the lake.
On this afternoon, Friday, May 20, 2016, she arrived at the Hughes’ home to watch three toddlers while their parents did some deep cleaning in the garage.
Annie had just finished her freshman year at Miami, and, back in Fort Wayne, her old roommate was sick with pneumonia. But Annie wasn’t worried — she’d visited her just yesterday and brought them both Starbucks: a grande mocha Frappuccino for Annie and a venti Very Berry Hibiscus Refresher for her roommate.
Annie smiled widely — showing all of her teeth — as she played with the kids on the rug in the living room. She held one of the 2-year-old twins in her lap, and he tugged at her light brown, shoulder-length hair.
The doorbell rang, and the kids’ mom went to answer it. Annie peered toward the front door, but didn’t get up.
Annie’s parents, Todd and Barb Rumsey, stood at the door. Red splotches covered Annie’s mom’s face.
Chris and Tracy Hughes joined them, and the four adults stepped outside.
Annie, suspicious, crept toward the front door with the children in tow. She watched the parents through the wooden door’s window. Finally, after waiting minutes for them to reenter the house, Annie opened the door.
“What’s wrong?” she said, holding out the youngest boy. “Hold Eddie — he makes anyone happy.”
The adults stepped inside.
“What?” Annie said, mishearing her mother’s words.
In recent years, Annie’s grandfather had a friend named Harriet. Annie thought her mother had said “Harry,” though they had never referred to Harriet with that nickname. Had something happened to her? Had she died?
“No,” her mother said, annunciating more clearly. “Haley. She’s gone.”
There were 16,387 total, undergraduate students enrolled at Miami’s Oxford campus in the fall of 2015.
In the spring of 2016, Miami University suffered at least three isolated student deaths. MinGi Kang fell from the Williams Hall radio tower in March, Timothy Fresch died in April from drug- and alcohol-related causes, and in May, Haley Wetherill died due to complications from pneumonia.
The way these students died isn’t surprising. In a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, pneumonia, homicide and suicide are cited among the top 10 leading causes for death among people ages 15-24. Unintentional injury ranked first, and suicide was second.
Suicide.org reports that suicide warning signs include giving away belongings, acting recklessly and talking or writing about death or suicide. Frequently, this mention of death is intended to bring about a discussion regarding suicide. According to the FAQs webpage on Suicide.org, there are approximately 75,000 attempted suicides in the U.S. each year.
Emory University reveals that one in 10 college students has a plan for suicide and that there are more than 1,000 suicides on college campuses each year.
Many assume that MinGi’s death is among that 1,000, though the university would not disclose whether his death was officially ruled as a suicide.
Hours had passed, but Ting didn’t know what to do.
The police wouldn’t tell Ting where MinGi was, if he was okay or how they had come to possess his student ID. They only told her not to leave her dorm, and she wanted to obey them.
But what about MinGi? Ting enlisted her friends to search for him while she waited in her room in Hillcrest Hall.
The officers returned, though they didn’t come to Ting.
From her room, Ting could hear the police next door as they rummaged through MinGi’s things. Ting considered going to speak with them but didn’t want to interrupt. She began to walk around aimlessly and continued to call MinGi’s cell phone.
There was no answer, and Ting didn’t know how to use voicemail. The police officers left and didn’t come back that evening.
Around midnight, MinGi’s parents contacted Ting. They found her information through MinGi’s friends and sent her a voice message through the WeChat international messaging application. They spoke in Chinese.
“Do you know that MinGi fell from the tower?” they asked her.
No, Ting knew nothing. The police could not disclose any information. She sent emails to the university begging for answers, swearing that she could find MinGi if they gave her the opportunity. They didn’t respond. What should she do?
“We are coming to America to deal with MinGi’s things,” they said. “He died.”
MinGi’s parents continued to explain, saying that the South Korean Embassy had contacted them.
Ting tried not to hear them.
Whoever they found, Ting thought, is not MinGi. She was certain.
Annie wanted to finish the babysitting job. The little kids would serve as a suddenly crucial distraction. She needed this.
“No, Annie,” said her mom. “You can’t stay because, unfortunately, you have to call people.”
Mackenzie. Sarah. Allie. Angela. Jenna, who will have phone numbers for Haley’s friends in the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity. People to call.
Annie had to reach Haley’s friends from Miami before the death circulated on social media. Haley’s family — the Wetherills — didn’t know how to get in contact with any of Haley’s friends from college.
Annie sat in her parents’ Ford Explorer in front of the Hughes’ house and began. She made phone calls all throughout the drive home — speaking to friends, her pastor and Haley’s mom — and continued long after the car had been parked in the driveway of her lake house. Annie remained in the front seat. Her mom waited with her.
Her dad left the garage door open and, eventually, a friend of the Rumsey’s brought Annie her dog: a black poodle named Shadow to give Annie some solace.
If Annie had been on her phone that afternoon, she would have known about Haley’s death before her parents could have reached her. Hours earlier, as Annie sat in the floor of the Hughes’ living room, her phone lit up with a text message. She hadn’t noticed it at the time.
The text was from a high school classmate, and it read: Is it true?
MinGi and Haley are dead. That hasn’t changed, and it won’t. Their deaths have broken the hearts of many people. Ting and Annie are only two of them.
Grief and sadness are acceptable — anything is. Reactions to death can’t be regulated or controlled.
Ting and Annie have been changed by their losses. They’re different, and it’s likely that a part of them always will be.
This story isn’t about the dead. It’s about what they left behind: their friends, their loved ones — the living. This is about moving on, experiencing and being thankful for what was.
This is about life after loss.
When MinGi Kang, Ting Zhao’s boyfriend of 17 months, died, Ting was 6,786 miles from home — two countries and an ocean away. She had no family nearby and grew to rely on the friends who knew and loved MinGi.
According to data provided by Miami University, the university’s international student population has grown from 928 in fall 2011 to 2,505 in fall 2016. That’s a 169.94 percent increase in five years.The Huffington Post explains that students are beginning to report depression, anxiety and social anxiety with growing frequency — a positive trend, since suicide.org labels untreated depression as the leading cause for suicide.Yet, while students utilize their university’s mental health services with increasing regularity, they are using these services to treat depression and anxiety — not grief.
When it comes to grief, Ting chooses to talk with mutual friends of MinGi’s. She can speak her native Chinese with MinGi’s friends, whereas Miami’s grief-counselors primarily speak English — a language Ting struggles with.
“My English is not very good,” said Ting. “So I am afraid that …I can’t express myself. And, I have my friends. They can help me. They know a lot of things about me and MinGi.”
Despite her fear of the language barrier, however, Ting does not plan to speak with professionals in China because mental health services are expensive. She depends solely on her friends.
“My family don’t know about [MinGi] very well,” said Ting. “They don’t know how he is — how he was. They don’t know what kind of people he is.”
Even more, the members of Ting’s family don’t verbally express love to one another. Though Ting knows that the love exists, affection among her family is unspoken.
But it is crucial that Ting continues to express her grief.
“Complicated grief has been shown to result in neuropsychological abnormalities, including changes in brain activity that can impair memory and the ability to regulate emotions,” said Dr. M. Katherine Shear of The New England Journal of Medicine in a 2015 New York Times article. “Untreated, it can result in prolonged sleep disturbance, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, immunologic abnormalities, and an increased risk of heart disease and cancer.”
While other students do speak with professionals, Annie primarily uses her hometown psychologist when she has anxiety. When it comes to Haley, her family supports her the most.
“The way I’ve felt for this whole process, my family has been the best option because I haven’t needed anything more,” Annie said.
And, she likes to talk about Haley.
“If [other people] are aware [of Haley’s death], I’m more comfortable,” she said.
For Annie, the grief has been gradual — so gradual, even, that she blames herself for having good days. Why are some days okay, when none of them should be?
If her family ever became insufficient to help her cope, Annie would not hesitate to contact Miami’s student counseling service.
Miami University Health Services offers its students psychoeducation workshops and programs, consolation, drug/alcohol use treatment, ADHD screening and treatment, medical withdrawal, psychiatric services and individual and group counseling, according to its website.
“Grief is an emotion that every one of us must experience in our lifetimes,” said the Miami University Student Counseling Service webpage on grief. “It does not have limits or boundaries, and anyone may be profoundly affected by it… Feelings of loss can meld into feelings of anxiety, fear, and emotional confusion. It is hard to know what is safe and reliable when familiar settings are suddenly touched by violence.”
The webpage offers other similar sentiments and provides viewers the phone number for Miami University’s Student Counseling Services. Viewers are also directed to websites on mental health, such as counseling services offered by the University of Michigan, the University of Florida, the University of Washington and the University of Texas at Austin.
But students have grown discouraged with their on-campus mental health services with increasing regularity. Many report facing a three- to four-week wait for appointments.
Miami University Student Health Services claimed it didn’t have time for brief discussions regarding grief services. A person who answered the phone also said they don’t keep statistics on student usage of grief counseling services. Furthermore, the university records department did not respond to multiple requests for information. If its availability cannot be adjusted, university health services will be unable to match the growing need for their services, and students like Ting and Annie will continue to depend on other outlets to express their grief.
The night the police told Ting that her boyfriend was missing, Ting slept for two hours.
MinGi had a close friend from home, Jìalìn Yang, who was attending college in Michigan. Jìalìn drove through the night and arrived in Oxford at 4 a.m. Ting came to his car.
“MinGi fell from the tower,” he said.
“No,” Ting insisted. “We don’t have a tower here.”
Shortly afterward, she found out about the radio tower at the Williams Hall, home to the Department of Media, Journalism and Film. They went there.
But there was nothing to see. Nothing marked the tower, nothing protected it. If someone had fallen, shouldn’t there be caution tape to keep people away?
Jìalìn and Ting continued their search, but didn’t find anything.
Ting returned home and, at 8 a.m., she heard people knocking on MinGi’s door — university officials. She went to them.
“Are you Ting?”
With solemn expressions, the four officials followed Ting back into her room.
They instructed her to sit down, and one official kneeled before her.
“MinGi is dead.”
And, somehow, this time, Ting knew it was true.
Every day of Annie’s freshman year began with Haley’s alarm. It played Adele’s “When We Were Young.” From then on, Annie began to associate Adele’s music with Haley.
When Beth Wetherill, Haley’s mother, offered Annie two tickets to the Adele concert in Chicago in July — almost two months after Haley’s death — Annie knew that she had to go. It had been Haley’s Christmas present.
Annie took her 18-year-old sister, Mary. They drove three hours to Chicago and saw the concert at the United Center.
The performance blew Annie away. Being there, in the presence of someone so representative of Haley, Annie felt entirely at peace. She cheered, laughed and cried as Adele described the inspiration between each song and joked about her past.
Annie recorded the performance of “When We Were Young” and texted it to Beth before Adele had the chance to begin her next song.
Six months after MinGi’s death, the sun shined down on Ting as she walked across Miami’s campus on her way to class.
Back in Oxford, Ting thought of MinGi often.
She considered not returning to Miami. When people die, their friends and loved ones tend to avoid anything associated with the deceased person, according to Fran Schumer in a 2009 article published in the New York Times.
After MinGi’s death, Ting didn’t go to class for a week. She couldn’t bring herself to sit there. Some professors were flexible, some weren’t. She felt an overwhelming guilt for being a part of the fight that led MinGi to climb that tower.
Ting wanted to grieve, to devote herself to sadness for a temporary period. But, after that week, Ting decided that she needed to collect herself and go back to school. Strength coursed through her, and she clung to it. No matter how busy she got, MinGi would never leave her.
And, despite it all, Ting loved Miami.
She loved the small town, loved that life is slow and quiet. The scenery and buildings enveloped the entire place in a world of beauty.
And, the memories. How could she stay home and leave the memories behind?
It would not be easy for Ting to be back on campus. But it would be harder to stay away.
So, here she was.
Ting struggled with some days more than others. She struggled on days like today, when she had a sudden urge to speak to MinGi after seeing a professor they loved to hate.
Walking through Academic Quad, Ting pulled out her phone and looked briefly at her lock screen: a photo of her and MinGi’s interlocked hands. She took a breath, opened WeChat and composed a message to MinGi.
Ting did this frequently. She sends a message to MinGi’s account when she’s thinking of him, or wants to tell him about her day.
Ting thought about her freshman year at Miami, when she was just getting close with MinGi. She thought about the trip they took to New York, a requirement for international students in Miami’s American Culture and English (ACE) program. She thought about how, when they were back in Oxford, he would walk her to Morris Hall and, if she ran up to her second-floor room fast enough, she could watch him walk to Stanton Hall through her window.
Ting smiled softly.
“Everyone around me told me that I will find a boyfriend in the future. I also think that’s true,” Ting said. “But not now.”
On a late November day, Annie stepped into Dennison Hall for the first time since Haley died.
She had lurked outside in the cold until a current resident entered and allowed her to slip inside since Annie’s student ID card could no longer admit her.
Annie passed through the door into the familiar lobby, turned left past the mailboxes and walked down her old corridor.
The scent of the place overcame her — a musty scent that was Dennison and, by association, a scent that was Haley. She continued along the hall, past the boys’ rooms and the bathrooms. She stopped at a door, second from the end, right side. Room 109.
The name tags on the door were not the same — now, instead of giraffes and snowflakes, each girl had a frog and a leaf to mark her residence. Jessica and Juliana.
Annie stared at the door for a moment and reached out to run her hand along the smooth metal of the handle. A door slammed shut somewhere along the adjacent hallway and a cheery girl walked past.
Surprised, Annie spun around to greet the girl — Emily, her old resident assistant.
“Have you met the residents who live here now?” said Emily. “Let’s knock! Wanna see the room?”
Annie shook her head, two fast, abrupt left-rights, and her expression betrayed her.
“No, thanks,” she said. “I just wanted to come down the hall.”
Being right outside that door — even with those strangers’ names — it still felt like her and Haley’s home. But, Annie knew that the second she knocked and a stranger pulled the door open, it wouldn’t be their home anymore.
If Annie went inside, she knew that she should see her stuff on the left and Haley’s stuff on the right. The wooden cubbies lining the small hallway that led from their door into their room. Their desks side-by-side. Fan on the refrigerator. Television by the window. Haley on her navy and white bedspread, watching Netflix on her laptop.
Two unfamiliar bursts of laughter came from behind the door — Dennison 109’s new residents. Annie listened to them for a moment and then walked away.