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Death pays a Visit

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

Shocking losses spark a search for greater understanding

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on August 24, 2023)

Author: Dr. RL Booker

Editor: Veronica Mobley

Photo of Rickey, Phillip, and Joe (Phillip's Brother)
Rickey, Phillip, and Joe (Phillip's Brother)

In the summer of 2016, I vividly remember a call from Phillip K. Cummings, my best friend, fraternity brother and the best man at my wedding. Phillip informed me he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. He was 35 years old. At that moment, I didn't understand the gravity of what he told me. I was still too unfamiliar with colon cancer.

After Phillip's first major surgery to remove the cancer, my wife, Brittany, and I joined Shamon Coger and Ivory Gilmore Jr. to visit him. We relived memories and shared a lot of laughter, showing as best we could how much we cared for him. I felt particularly emotional as I looked over at my wife, who was three months away from giving birth to our child. It was a strange mix of feelings: Joy at the prospect of new life as we visited our friend experiencing so much pain and facing the possibility of death.

In the years to come, Phillip fought colon cancer every single day. As a registered nurse, Phillip was determined to do everything he could to find a cure, not just for himself, but for so many others who were battling cancer daily. Unfortunately, his determination couldn't save him. After a well-fought six and a half years, Phillip transitioned from this life on May 16, 2023. This was the first time in my life I've experienced heart-wrenching grief due to the death of someone close to me.

Photo of Robert and Rickey
Robert and Rickey

On Wednesday, July 12, 2023, I received a phone call from my fraternity brother and mentor, Robert Elliot Seay (nickname Big Seay). He proceeded to tell me that he and Shonda (his wife) were riding together in the car and they had a question for me. He then asked me, "how long have you and your wife been married". They both attended our wedding years ago. My answer was "14 years." Before he could say anything, his wife Shonda stated, "I told you it was 14 years, I told you." We all laughed and I told them, "I am just happy to be a part of y'all's conversation."

On Sunday, July 16, 2023, I received a phone call and was informed that Big Seay had died of a sudden heart attack. Big Seay was only 53 years old. As a 42-year-old man, I'm not embarrassed to admit that I cried like a baby while held in the loving arms of my wife. To know Robert Seay was to love him. As a father, husband, friend, and manager of Walmart Branch Store 390 in Waverly, Tenn., Robert Seay impacted so many lives. He was the heart and soul of the Rho Mu chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. in Monticello. Big Seay truly loved, cared for and respected the dignity of everyone he interacted with.

This was the second time in two months (to the day) I experienced such bereavement. Losing two mighty pillars in my life has been the most difficult thing I've had to endure. I have always understood sadness. This was different. Heavier. Even after months, I'm still working to wrap my head around it.

Photo of Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, founding director of the Center for Loss & Life Transition
Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, founder of the Center for Loss & Life Transition

According to Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, founding director of the Center for Loss & Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colo, "Sadness is a hallmark symptom of grief, which in turn is the consequence of losing something we care about. In this way, you could say that sadness and love are inextricably linked."

When you love someone and they mean the world to you, there will be grief and sadness, which can show up in a number of ways. For me, it shows up in tears, reflecting on cherished memories and the desire to talk with family and friends about those memories. Wolfelt outlines six needs of mourning. I'm working through them now and see value in sharing them:

  • Acknowledge the reality of death -- Acknowledging that Phillip and Big Seay will never physically come back into my life again has been very difficult. I am working toward being patient and compassionate with myself during this phase.

  • Embrace the pain of the loss -- For me, embracing the pain of loss comes in the forms of avoiding it, distracting myself, and at times confronting it. I am learning that there is no perfect answer for embracing the pain of grief.

  • Remember the person who died -- I will always remember Phillip and Big Seay in the form of memories, photos, souvenirs. Even this article is a form of remembrance.

  • Develop a new self-identity -- I feel myself taking on a new identity by engaging with those who I love, expanding my horizon professionally and exploring new knowledge that focuses on self-identity.

  • Search for meaning -- This shows up by asking "How could this happen?" and "Why did this happen?" Wolfelt explains this is a normal part of grieving because losing someone you love can feel like you lost a part of yourself.

  • Receive support from others -- For me, this is the most important and influential step. My family, close inner circle of friends, and my therapist are all playing a significant role in how I am dealing with grief.

Photo of Nora McInerny
Nora McInerny

In a 2019 TedTalk about grief, speaker and author Nora McInerny says "Once it's your grief and you're front row at the funeral, you get it ... We need to remember that a grieving person is going to laugh again and smile again ... and yes, absolutely, they're going to move forward. But that doesn't mean that they've moved on."

I dedicate this column to Phillip K. Cummings (Zi Beta, Sp. '01) and Robert Elliott Seay (Rho Mu, Sp. '88), and to those of you who are grieving and feel isolated in your sadness. I can't take your pain away any more than I could save my friends. Nonetheless, if we fully process our grief and give it room to breathe, it might allow us to live our lives more fully and intentionally. If our loved ones were still here, I have a feeling that's what they'd want for us.



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