They packed the room to the brim and then some, clogging the heavy air thick with loss, remembering a student, a brother, a friend.
Gone too soon was junior Trent Stetler, the hundreds said together. It didn’t make sense — no one knew why. After a long pause, the deafening silence was punctuated by a pair of words forced out with two sharp gasps of raw emotion: “Big smile.”
Laughter broke out, because that’s what Trent would have wanted, after all. The day after he committed suicide, as confirmed by the Burlington Police Department, they came together for an Elon-hosted “Gathering of Friends” held in his memory.
And remember they did — inside an upstairs room in Lakeside Jan. 12. — not Trent’s death, but the 20 years of his life that so many wished were longer.
There was the stranger who didn’t know Trent too well, but wished he did. There was the friend to whom he yelled, “You’re a wizard, Harry!”
There was the questionable purchase of spicy beef jerky during a stop at Kangaroo, and there was the matter of the game Trent made up to coerce his friends to finish it through their laughter. There was the time Trent had to interview the adviser to his business fraternity, Alpha Kappa Psi, when he showed up late to Irazu, doused both of them in scalding coffee and, with no questions prepared, somehow still managed to win his adviser over.
For all that there was, so much still is, for the abundance of people who are better now for having known Trent. There are no easy answers, they say, no way to understand, no point in trying. But there are the good times, the times he made them feel like they were a part of something really special, if only for a little while.
Trent was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of friend they say, able to get along with anyone, able to turn any bad day around, able to give you hours when he didn’t have five minutes to spare.
He was someone who cared.
“Trent cared so much about helping other people that he wasn’t always worried about himself,” said junior Abby Hensler, a close friend. “Even if he was upset about something, he would still be trying to help other people. He was so
Half the time, Hensler said, she didn’t even realize when he was doing it. Almost every weekend of last school year, she and Trent and a couple of their closest friends would make a trip to Dunkin’ Donuts for breakfast. She remembers these times with a smile.
What she didn’t find out until after his death was that Trent hated Dunkin’ Donuts. And yet, he would scarf down his coffee and breakfast sandwich without a word of complaint, because he knew it made her happy.
She wasn’t the only one, and it wasn’t just his friends, either.
“There was never anything that we had to ask to be done twice,” said Jonathan Miller, director of The Phoenix Club, where Trent interned. “His engaging personality was seen with the relationships he was able to develop.”
At the gathering in mid-January and after, no one has wanted to dwell on his loss. To them, the pain is still too real. In the meantime, Elon has each other, said Jan Fuller, the university chaplain who led the gathering.
“This is a terrible loss, and we have got to feel it as individuals and as a community, and no amount of information is going to bring him back,” Fuller said. “That’s the real issue is that he’s gone, and he’s not coming back.”
When the news broke, not one of his fellow Alpha Kappa Psi members knew quite what to say.
“It was definitely a very emotional time,” sophomore Cole Krajeski said. “I know a lot of people were crying and shocked that it even happened. Not a lot of people said much of anything.”
The statistics speak for themselves when it comes to college students, especially males, and suicide, according to Alexis O’Brien, public relations director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). The suicide rate among males is roughly four times that of females. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young Americans 18-24.
Those who knew Trent best, though, don’t care about the statistics. They care about their friend. And no one said they saw it coming.
Common suicide warning signs for college students include being quiet, reserved and depressed, O’Brien said. Many who knew him said such traits couldn’t have been further from the case with Trent.
Michael Skube, associate professor of communications, taught Trent in one of his media writing courses. The professor said he remembers his student as an unusually positive and optimistic individual.
“He never complained, always had a smile and gave no hint that something in his world was not right,” Skube said. “I could not have been more surprised.”
Though suicide is never the right answer, Fuller said, she believes Trent is now at peace and takes some comfort in that.
“If we’re angry about it, it’s perfectly legitimate because his death is at our expense, and it’s OK to feel that way,” she said. “But I think even a secular person might say that he’s found his peace in the separation from whatever was troubling him.”
Whatever it was that troubled him, Trent hid it well behind a smile that split his face from ear to ear, especially when he started talking about something that got him excited, especially when the words spilled out a mile a minute and the laughter struggled to keep up.
After the news spread around campus — first slowly, and then all at once — Trent’s closest friends turned to each other. His Provence apartment, which Trent shared with three friends who had lived together since they started at Elon, overflowed with dozens of people. Some passed through and offered their condolences to his roommates. Some stopped in their tracks, dazed, when they stepped foot through the door he wouldn’t be opening anymore.
Trent’s roommates were hit hard. Just a little while into school his freshman year, Trent one night proclaimed them friends for life and promised they would live together all four years of college.
One of them laughed it off at the time, coming from this goofy kid he didn’t yet much know. In the gathering for Trent, the same kid spoke up, heartbroken he would never get that extra year with his best buddy.
No one seemed immune to Trent’s charm — there was no one who called his smile less than infectious or his personality less than perfect. He didn’t judge, they said. He didn’t gossip. He didn’t backstab. He didn’t care what fraternity a person was in, where they came from or where they were going. He wanted to get to know everyone, even if just for a moment. Such moments mattered.
“Every person he met, you would just want to be friends with him,” Hensler said. “Anyone who met him remembered him and would want to stay friends with him.”
It may make letting go that much harder, and students who knew him may benefit from talking to someone, said Smith Jackson, vice president for student life, in the email informing the campus of the news.
He emphasized the significance of the loss and encouraged those who knew him to seek support.
“The death of any student is devastating to our community [especially in situations like this], and we want to reach out to friends and acquaintances who knew Trent,” he said. “The loss of a classmate, friend and student reminds [us] just how precious the life of each person in our community is.”
Just how many of these kinds of people there are is now more apparent than ever. Calling it “crazy” to look around the room at Trent’s gathering and see so many people she only knew because of Trent, Hensler said she knew from walking into the room before it filled that the hundred or so chairs were way less than what was going to be needed to fit everyone.
She was right, judging from those packed standing around the walls and the others who claimed a shred of carpet that became both precious real estate and blanket to catch the tears that the boxes on boxes of Kleenexes missed.
“I feel blessed to see how many people whose lives he touched,” Hensler said. “I feel like he impacted more people in 20 years than most people would in 100. I hope he sees how important he was to so many people.”
It seemed to bring his parents some comfort, to see a room so packed with so many who loved him for all he was, for all he came to be.
“If you’ve spoken with anyone from Elon, I think they would all tell you it was a great celebration of his life and the impact he had on many,” his parents, Jim and Denette Stetler, said in an email. “At this time, we are emotionally and physically drained and the thought of trying to adequately and eloquently answer questions is a bit overwhelming.”
For the overwhelmed at Elon, there are resources. And the overwhelmed are not alone, according to an Elon Local News report on depression conducted in November 2014 that found that roughly 1,500 Elon students may suffer from depression.
Counseling is one such resource. Counseling Services is located in the R.N. Ellington Center on South Campus and is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Because Counseling Services has a small counseling staff, it is focused on providing short-term services. It does, though, offer 24-assistance from a counselor who is on call after hours and weekends, who can be reached through Campus Security at 336-278-5555. Nationally, though, there are 24-hour resources, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Still, some suicide experts feel that there is always something more that could be done at colleges and universities.
“The grieving process is ongoing, so the needs are most immediate after the death,” O’Brien, from AFSP, said. “[Counseling] is not something that can be put away with one meeting.”
Just talking, in any setting, may help, too.
“Sometimes we make meaning by getting the facts, by lining up the answers…we do that all the time, and usually there’s more information to help us do that,” Fuller said. “But we have no answer for this, and we could fool ourselves by thinking that if we had the facts, then we could make meaning of this, but it becomes in the end a diversion from our grief.”
There is no diversion for Trent’s closest friends, not one moment of one day, they say. Each took from Trent something different, but they all took something to hold onto for a long time.
“We all just learned a lot from his personality,” Hensler said. “Just being around him, I think I picked up on things I wish I was better at — just how accepting he was, how caring he was.”
Hensler remembers a lot. She remembers their Qdoba dinners, their movie nights — Trent would always pick the weirdest flick out of the Netflix queue. Whenever she had good news, he was the first person she would run to because he amplified her excitement and made it take on a life of its own.
She would never take back knowing him, no matter the pain, now. He meant too much, means too much — did, does, will.
“We’re just trying to focus on our memories and the bond that we have because of him,” Hensler said. “It’s not getting any easier to accept that he’s gone.”