Grief & Communication

by Mike Hipple

Okay, this might be the hardest thing that I have written in my life. Today, I’m going to be writing about a topic in our society we don’t like to talk about with anyone: grief and loss. I am also going to tell you about one of my high school friends and how he impacted my life and provided me with insight into how grief and loss affected my communication.

One of my best friends from high school was Tim Klotz. He was an amazing human, a lover of all animals, and he loved to discuss sports. I met Tim on my first day of high school with my friend Logan. We were all in classes together, almost all of our classes for the next four years. Tim got cancer in his leg in the fall of our freshman year. He needed to be home-schooled for one and half years. I communicated with him during this period to check up on him and tell him the gossip. When he got back, it was just like before he had cancer. We would have talked before the bell rang.Sometimes, he would join me for lunch, and any time we could chat, we did. 

Tim, Logan, Ty, and I were always together. My favorite story that I can tell is when the four of us were in the computer lab.We should have been searching about history, but we were looking up sports news. I had an amazing one-on-one aide and a great teacher who let me be like anyone else in high school. They allowed me and the boys to be teenagers. On one of our last days in school, we had lunch and told stories. I know now that it was the last lunch that I would have with everyone together, but I didn’t think that would happen then. I remember that we talked about our favorite memories and our hopes for the future. Looking back, I am so glad that we had that opportunity to be together. When we walked with our class for graduation, I could see these friends and was wondering what our future  will be and who we will become. Would Ty become a pilot or the president of the United States? Would Logan become a football star or a truck driver?, Would I become a famous author or behavioral specialist? And would Tim become the first one-leg basketball star or a mechanic? We didn’t know and we didn’t care. All that we wanted to do that summer is celebrate and have fun. And we did that. I have amazing memories from that summer! Going to each other’s parties, talking about how we were finally free from school, and doing things together. 

Fall brought college or jobs for the four of us. Everyone was busy.Like most people we didn’t get to talk much, just to check in. I remember my chat with Tim [I know now it was our last chat]. It was on January 21st and Tim asked me if Ty and him could stop over. I said yes, but they didn’t come. That was just a couple of weeks before he took his own life. Man, I can’t count the times that I looked at the text message that he texted me over the coming years and wished that he had come over to talk to me. I would have helped him. 

On a Saturday in February, I was working on a paper for a class that I was in. I had a Valentine’s dance that I was going to volunteer at. I had some free time, so I went on Facebook to see what was happening. A lot of people were saying, “RIP Tim, you were a great friend, and you will be missed.” In my heart, I knew that he killed himself, but my mind didn’t want to believe this. So, I wrote something to one of our teachers asking him to please tell me that Tim didn’t do what I think he did. He wrote back to me that I am sorry to tell you this Mike, but he killed himself. I remember yelling with my AAC device, “no no no!”. Both of my parents came to my room to check in on what was happening to me. I was so overcome by thoughts and feeling hurt by Tim. ,  I couldn’t use my device. so Mom, and Dad needed to read my Facebook post and then asked me yes and no questions. 

My Mom saw the message from my teacher and asked me if this was about school and if she needed to try to get my aide or  case manager on the phone. I said yes. Mom called my case manager and said “I am sorry to call you, but Mike is crazy upset and I couldn’t find out why.” My case manager responded, “I was just going to call you, one of his best friends killed himself last night. I didn’t know until an hour ago.If you want me to come over I can.” Mom said no, but thanks. Mom said to me, “I am so sorry Mike.” 

That week and the following weeks and years, I asked myself many what-if questions and said things to myself like I was a terrible friend. I was so frustrated with myself for not asking Tim what he needed to talk about. At the time, I had a student who I was working with. He was in six grade. I thought to myself that I didn’t need any time off. My aide, who I had in school,  said “I know that you said that you are fine and ready to do things but we just lost someone who we knew well. Please consider taking some time off and I will write an email to his team.” I told her and everyone else who wanted me to take some time off that I was fine. 

Guess what, I wasn’t fine. On one visit to work with the student, I went off at the student and after that visit I got an email saying that I couldn’t work with the student anymore. That started my anger and frustration with the world. I kept thinking that I was a terrible friend to someone who needed me and I should kill myself. That summer  one of my best friends who I have known since we were three or four, came to work for me by being by  aide. I call her my sister. That was the best thing because we talked for hours. I wasn’t a big believer in God, but she was and still is. I remember asking my Mom if we might start attending church, because I wanted to get to know God. I think we stopped going to church when I was in grade school. My Mom said of course. We went church shopping to a few churches. We went to the church that Tim’s family had his service at, and I knew right away that this was our church. Still today I can feel Tim’s love and goofiness when I walk in. I also did a lot of journaling about how I was feeling and doing during that period. 

This February was ten years since Tim killed himself. For me, it has been a journey with times that I am okay and times that I’m not okay. Sometimes I will be thinking about what if I wrote back to Tim saying, “Hey are you guys coming over or what?”. checked in with him from time to time or said “let’s go somewhere tonight or on the weekend”. Wouldhe still be alive? 

For families, professionals, and people who use AAC, I have five tips for you to help you through this hard time for everyone involved. 

1. More talk time: If you are in school or a therapy setting, please allow talk time about how they are feeling and doing. Everyone will feel different and have different needs. They might feel sad, hurt, frustrated, or sad and that is okay.

    2. Ask them if they need anything and check in with their family members to see if the family needs anything too: This is a hard time for everyone. Their family will be going through this too. 

      3. Go easy for a few days for them. This isn’t the time to start a new program or work on something that they have been having trouble with. Maybe you can work on something that you know they know. 

      4. Understand if they demonstrate many  behaviors. They are going through a tough time like everyone does. Please don’t judge their actions. Remember how you felt when you lost someone near to you? You might be sad, hurt, frustrated, and lonely, because you just lost someone that was in your life. People who use a communication device might be feeling these feelings, but they might not know how to communicate their feelings. They might have behaviors to communicate how they are feeling. 

      5.  Love them to no end. They need to know that people care and support them. That is key. 

        6. Ensure there is a way to express different feelings on their AAC device: We need to add words on their device like afraid, serious, grumpy, and terrify. Some sayings that you might want to add are I need a minute, I need to have talk time, I am still having trouble with..

        About the Author

        Mike Hipple is a young man with a physical disability. He has been using assistive technology and AAC since 1998 to communicate with his family and to move around in the community. He is an active member of the AAC community and his local community. He started Wisconsin AAC Network in 2015 to give everybody a voice in WI AAC  AT communities. When he is working on his writings you bet he will have on the TV or when he is relaxing. When he was in the third grade, he had 3000 minutes in time out, and that is not a joke

        Portrait of author, Mike Hipple

        Thank you for reading this blog post. The views expressed in this post are that of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of USSAAC members and board members. No endorsement by USSAAC is implied regarding any device, manufacturer, resource or strategy mentioned. We would love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts with a comment below or send a message through our contact page.

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