URC

Shattering, Structuring, and Saving Communities: Exploring the Impact of Ben’s Death

Sarah Levant
Temple University


Abstract

The purpose of this study was to explore the premature death and dynamics of Ben Himmelstein in his communities. Conducted in an autoethnographic writing style, questionnaires were gathered through the social networking site, Facebook, giving access to several of Ben’s different communities. Additionally, data were collected by phone and in-person interviews. Results reflected that relationships and perspectives vary with every individual, and relationships with community members and ourselves define who we are.

Introduction

During my sophomore year at Temple University I met a charismatic man named Ben. From my first encounter, I knew he was brilliant, kind, and had a certain charm that allowed him to be friends with anyone. He was special. Soon our friendship turned into a serious relationship. On May 4th 2009, Ben explained, “When you’re ready to settle down, I just hope that it’s me you pick.” We loved each other.

On May 6th, it rained heavily all day and Ben did not return my phone calls. I knew something happened to him. I thought Ben had gotten into a car accident because the roads were in poor condition. I waited for my cell phone to ring. Finally, 10:30 at night someone tried to call me. It was the fiancée of Ben’s best friend, Ally.1 I went outside on the balcony of my apartment where my cell phone had reception.

“Hey, how are you?” I hear silence. My heart beats faster.

“Where are you?” Ally asks.

“My apartment.”

“Are there people at your apartment?”

“Yeah…some of my roommates…”

            “When was the last time you saw Ben?”

I answer, “Last night…”

“…Did you get in a fight?”

I feel my breath shaking. “It was nothing, he just…did something I didn’t appreciate…” Her breath also shakes. “How close were you to Ben?”

Why did she use past tense? “Well, we haven’t been going out that long…but we’re really close…” I hear her sniffling.

“How close were you with his family?”

“I…I…” I’m scared. “I’ve met them a couple of times.  What happened?” Ally says something but I cannot hear her.

“I’m sorry I didn’t catch that”

“Ben…he’s gone…”

 A horrible ringing fills my ears. I lick my lips and gasp for air. “What do you mean he’s gone?” My eyes are filling up with tears. “He’s dead?” I blurt confused.

I hear her hesitating breaths; I hear the tightness in her throat. “Yeah…”

“Are you sure?” I ask.

“Yeah…” 

I cannot believe her. “You really sure?” I whisper, waiting to hear SURPRISE on the other end of the phone. I wait. Ben’s voice never comes. I hear her crying. I grab the wall as my knees buckle. I hear banging on the glass. I see Michelle, my best friend and roommate, staring at me in panic. I realize I’ve been screaming. I lunge for the handle. I grab it shaking my head at Michelle. She is still staring at me. I want to be alone. I feel my heart explode in my chest. I feel everything dying inside of me.

I scream so loudly people come out on their balconies to see if I’m dying. I feel dead. I fall on the floor. I realize I’m still holding a cell phone to my ear.

“—Sarah breathe. Breathe.” Ally commands.

“OH MY G-D. OH MY G-D!” I am screaming.

“Just breathe.” I breathe.

“G-D NO!”  Michelle tries to open the door. I slam it shut.

“Breathe Sarah.” After a while, I manage to gain control of myself.

“How did he pass?”

“We don’t know. His Dad found him on the floor in his room…” I close my eyes. Heroin. Stupid. How could my love die like this? How could you have done this to us, to me, to your family, to your friends?

My Process to Autoethnography

Following Ben’s death my relationship with my communities irreversibly changed. To break down the concept of community, I define it as a given environment where I interact with people such as my community with family, friends, classmates, or acquaintances on Facebook.   Death, I quickly learned in our American society, is taboo. Death is that monstrous elephant in the room. From my experience, I found my true friends and discovered that my family loves me unconditionally.

During this school year, Ben and his family never strayed far from my thoughts. They even became a part of my course curricula. My Research and Methods class required students to complete a series of assignments about a neighborhood or a community. At the end of the semester, we gathered the information and synthesized everything into a final paper. I mulled over the concept of community. I decided to examine Ben’s relationship with his communities prior to and after his passing and the level of interaction between the communities over time. 

I decided to compile a questionnaire and email it to Ben’s friends on Facebook, in hopes of obtaining responses from Ben’s different communities. To prevent bias, I chose random sampling. I wrote all of Ben’s friends names on a sheet of paper, ripped the names onto separate slips and drew them out of a hat. Additionally, I conducted an in-person interview along with two phone interviews. Now, I needed to figure out how I was going to use the data and thread the information into a mosaic of stories memorializing Ben. After I did my own research and spoke with Dr. Kohl, my Research and Methods professor, I discovered the method of autoethnography.

In autoethnography, I am a member of my own research. In my study, I desire to help and learn from others. Autoethnography does not have one definition. Autoethnography blurs differences between researcher and subject, sharing authority between the roles of participants and researchers. In this narrative reflection, I want to write an analytic story with several people. Together, I want to capture Ben’s essence through stories from his different communities. This article reflects my learning of different perspectives of Ben and his participation in communities over time.

Method: Questionnaires2

I developed questionnaires in hopes of learning different facets of Ben’s communities. While constructing the questionnaires, I realized how difficult it was to write good questions. I feared that if I wrote personal questions people would not answer them. Therefore, I used broad nonspecific questions. Later I learned people preferred specific questions; otherwise the questions are impersonal and limited. Additionally, I was surprised by the non-response rate and lack of commitment (perhaps due to the sensitive subject). I contacted 18 people. 14 agreed that they would take the questionnaire. Only 9 ultimately responded to me. It is important to note I am working with a small group and there is no way of knowing if the random individuals whom responded accurately represent the bigger population of Ben’s diverse communities.

When I first received the questionnaires, I did not expect to have such a hard time reading them. Due to the disappointed and angry tones reflected in the writing styles, I had a hard time swallowing this perspective. Ben’s older cousin Danny is a man in his early to mid twenties. Danny went to the same high school and lived in Ben’s house for a year. Danny shared communities of school, beach, synagogue, family, and friends with Ben. Danny clearly had a brotherly-frustrated tone in his questionnaire.

In response to my questionnaire question, How did Ben impact you? Danny stated,

“I always felt Ben was free to make his own decisions. When we were young, he always wanted to have fun. When he hit high school I noticed him acting more rebellious. I never felt bad for him but I did feel bad for his family. That was the biggest impact.”

His answer to the question, How has your community transformed over time before and after Ben’s passing?  unveiled that:

The family has been on a downward spiral since Ben started acting up. Now it's at the bottom and struggling to get back up.”

In addition to Danny, Vaughn, a man in his late 50s, had a disappointed tone in his writing. Vaughn, a family friend had known Ben for nine years. He described his relationship as an “Adult Jewish friend, close friend of his father's, family friend, dog lover, buddy.” When asked about shared common communities with Ben, he responded,

His father, his family, BMW owners. I have another young friend (mid 20s) who lived with similar age group living along the Brandywine. They experienced an overdose death in their home just a few miles away and prior to Ben's death. I hate seeing and making that connection to Ben, but it's there.”        

When I asked, “How did Ben impact you?” I could see the underlying tone of regret.

I hated seeing Ben make mistakes that I made when I was about his age, and he always seemed to pay for them a little (or a lot) more dearly. I think he always had the best intentions but failed to consistently own up to certain responsibilities. I am not sure he appreciated the opportunities that were being presented in his life. I thought he was slowly coming around, but he almost always dropped the ball for some reason. He had many great qualities, but any admiration I had was always restrained by an odd foreshadowing of disappointment, maybe not expected, but always in the realm of possibility. Sometimes people pass through your life and it is kind of obvious that they are not being as careful as they probably should be.”

As a researcher, I had to put Danny and Vaughn’s questionnaires aside because I had trouble separating myself emotionally from my study. I did not expect this project to be so challenging; however, after I had gained control over my emotions, I could read their responses and respect them.

Another emotionally challenging segment of this project consisted of the future plans people had with Ben. One respondent, Bill, a former professor of Ben at Delaware County Community College, explained that Ben,

“…was the one who approached me about starting a Jewish Club, just at the same time I wanted to start one. We got together for lunch one day at DCCC and had a great talk. I really liked him a lot. I was sure we would make a great team. I felt his loss very selfishly. I thought, how could you leave me now? We had plans! I wish he had put his feelings in writing…”

When I read this I could not help but reflect this message personally. I also felt Ben’s loss selfishly, and it was interesting to know I am not the only one. I enjoyed seeing Bill’s perspective, because I could relate.

Moreover, Vaughn felt like he was beginning to develop a great relationship with Ben. He stated,

“He was just starting to show some real interest in things we liked, particularly golf and maybe horse racing. He was becoming a better companion. I feel more of a loss of what could have been, as things were starting to look up…”

Like Vaughn and Bill, I had a hard time adapting to Ben’s absence, because I wanted to have more memories with Ben. Similar to Vaughn and Bill, I had expectations.

When I sent out the questionnaires on Facebook, I took the task as a chore because it was an assignment given in my Research Methods class. I did not have expectations from that particular assignment. In fact, I dreaded what I would get for the responses.

For example, Kelly is Caucasian, in her early twenties and one of Ben’s best friends. Kelly is in Ben’s friends and family communities. In the beginning of the questionnaire, Kelly stated that,

“Ben affected my life in many ways. I looked at him to be a positive role model for my daughter, and he will never be replace[d] in my life. I feel that he was a great inspiration to everyone in his communities, and he lived his life being the best person he could've been. He truly was an amazing person in every aspect of his life… Ben impacted me in many ways. He helped show me how to live my life having a good time, and forget about the bad things that had happened to me. He helped me realize that I could trust people again, and that people come into your life again, sometimes for a reason.”

I loved her passionate outlook about Ben. Moreover, I liked the altruistic relationships he shared with individuals. Kelly knew Ben for eight years, from his young adult to his adult life.

Jane, a former tutor who helped Ben in 1997, also had a passionate response. She explained that she and Ben lived physically in the same community, “but in very different areas. I lived more in the "college" area of town, where Ben's family lived in a beautiful neighborhood in the outer part of town.”

When I asked how Ben affected her, she responded:

“Ben impacted me greatly. When I first began tutoring him, Ben was very quiet, insecure, and easily frustrated. After some time (probably a few months or so), Ben began to open up to me. I think he realized that I wasn't a threat to him and that I was truly there to help him in any way that I could. He had a tough time focusing and being able to retain a lot of the information presented in books....this easily frustrated him. We worked well together...Ben knew that I was going to be there no matter what, so he eventually "let me in".... I do think that Ben really ended up loving the time we spent together—it just took a while for him to get there! After losing touch for about ten years, I was so happy to find Ben on Facebook. We did write back and forth a couple of times, but after I wrote to him the last time I never heard back…Working with Ben made me realize the importance of patience and also that every one can learn, just sometimes in a different way. This was my first experience really teaching someone else...now I've been doing it for 9 years…”

I was impressed with Jane’s response. With this memory, she illustrated the transition of her relationship and the bond she created with Ben over time.

In relation to the community interaction questions, I did not have set expectations, which helped encompass the diverse stances people harbored. For example, on the questionnaire I asked, “What changes did you observe in your community after he passed?” Kelly answered: 

“I saw that my community realized how valuable a friend is in your life. It changed how much we talked to each other, and we just make a conscious effort to make sure all of us are there for each other when we need someone… My community became happier when Ben was around. He always knew how to make everything better for everyone around me. I feel like after he died we still try to maintain the happiness he brought to us, but we all know Ben is not there. Certain moments and situations just aren’t the same without him there, and we all know that in our hearts… I have not been able to deal with doing normal activities that Ben and I would share.

With Kelly’s response, I realized how important communities are, even on a subliminal and unrecognizable level, and the importance of relationships. Moreover, her words emphasized how much one person influences a community and affects linked communities as well. Ben, a person who did not meet many people from my various communities, had a cataclysmic affect on my relationships with these different communities. Because of one person, my entire outlook on life changed. Hence, all my relationships and outlooks on my communities changed.

Kelly and I were not the only ones who felt this way. In Jane’s questionnaire, she stated,

“My own personal community changed…This little boy who I helped take care of and helped form, grew up into such a handsome young man....now he's gone—I think about him often and will be forever changed because of him.”

The pattern of community transformation appears in all of the questionnaires. Additionally, there is the pattern of contacting Ben’s family after his death.

In Kelly’s questionnaire, she explained,

“I have interacted with Ben's family. I keep in contact with his cousin whom I have always been a friend with since I met Ben. I have also talked to his parents. We were all involved with a wedding that Ben was to be a groomsman in, and I got to spend some time with them.”

On the subject of interaction between other communities, Vaughn stated,

“Certainly with his family, fairly intensely starting with a call from [Ben’s father] just hours after the discovery of Ben's death. [Ben’s sister] and I are pretty close but don't discuss Ben. They had me stay in Ben's room one night and I did it more for the family then for me. I thought it was a way to help move on, but it was at least a bit strange. The only other experience of note was getting his stoner buddies to participate in burying Ben. They were lurking on the outskirts of the funeral, and I thought it was important that they bury their friend. They came around, but it was a very strange vibe. Kind of Goth, I guess.”

Vaughn also added that he continues certain rituals following Ben’s death,

Playing golf with his dad and White Manor, and playing ball with Teddy (that may be the biggest). 3

Questionnaires: Analysis and Observations

From the data collected, we can see the limited level of interaction amongst the communities. However, Ben’s family appears as a common thread.  Moreover, the relationships between individuals within the communities of Ben drastically changed. The grieving process is tricky, because it varies with every individual. For me, I felt very alone during the process, because 95 percent of my communities had never met Ben. After reading what members of Ben’s different communities had to say, I no longer felt alone. I feel connected to them, seeing their processes and perspectives on events brought me a measure of comfort that I had not anticipated.

Overall, the method of using Facebook provided a convenient sample. Because Facebook makes it easy to communicate, many of the respondents continued to contact me after completing the questionnaire. This method remained helpful because people partook in snowball sampling, suggesting other people whom I should contact. Moreover, people whom I did not contact about the project, who are friends with Ben on Facebook, wanted to be friends with me on Facebook in order to contribute or connect with me in some way. Even people who had chosen not to complete the questionnaire wanted to friend me on Facebook. Perhaps this is a formulating community in memory of Ben.

As an observation, I noticed that of the nine people, who responded to me, five were women and four were male. All of the women went into detail, orally and written, about their emotions, and explained their thought processes without prompting. Simplifying the answers—the women looked at Ben in a positive, misunderstood light. Generally, the men were direct, less emotional with their answers and looked at Ben in a negative, frustrated light. I thought it was interesting that everyone who answered me wanted to help more after completing the questionnaire or the interviews. Unfortunately, due to time constraints and lack of creativity, I did not offer them another avenue by which to help.

To illustrate different perspectives of Ben’s communities, I share one in-person and two the phone interviews.

Danny’s In-Person Interview

Interestingly, Ben’s cousin Danny approached me for an interview. We agreed to meet at local sandwich shop, The Noshery.4

“The questions I have are stupid.” I blurt, dropping my eyes. “You already answered the questions on the questionnaire…I don’t know what to ask. I…don’t want to offend you…”I freeze, realizing charming smiles run in the family.

“Ask me anything. I won’t be offended.”

“All right…I’ll ask you the same questions I asked on a phone interview…So what communities did you have in common?”

He shifts, “See, at first I didn’t understand what you meant by communities on the questionnaire but I still wanted to help.”

“Yeah…I didn’t like how I had to do the questionnaire. It was one of the assignments for the Research class...” I say.

“I just felt like the questionnaire was impersonal…” He pauses, sitting up. “It’s hard to talk about…those kinds of things on Facebook. I couldn’t answer the questions how I wanted to. I would have to write six pages. It’s just better in person or on the phone about these kinds of things.”

I nod, “So what could I have done differently? Because I needed the questionnaire for the assignment.” I pause. “Were the questions okay?”

“Well, for what it was, it was good.” Danny says. “I guess…what you could change is at the end say, ‘if you like to talk in-person here’s my contact. Also, when I found out that you were emailing a bunch of people about the questionnaire…I felt like…it took something away. Like what I had to say wasn’t as important.”

“This is how I learn.” I respond. “What you’re saying makes a lot of sense.” I shake my head, wondering how many respondents I lost due to my mistakes.

 “Alright…well going back to the community question…a community can be anything. It’s up to your interpretation. Like it could be religious, sport related,  friends, family…”

“Oh!” He nods (I realized that the vagueness of community might affect people’s responses, and less inclined to participate). “We shared, school, beach, synagogue, family, and friends.”

“How do you interact with those communities now?” I ask feeling my inner geographer coming out.

“Now I have no urge to go to the house. Before I would hang out with Ben…but what am I going to do now? Hang out with my uncle? It’s not the same. I…used to hang out with Ben’s friends, but Ben was the one who was holding us together…without him, I just don’t feel the urge to see them. Only Kelly. She and I are still friends.” Danny pauses thoughtfully. “Usually my uncle, aunt, and cousins would come and stay at the shore for weeks and weeks over the summer. But they didn’t do it as much last summer…after Ben passed.”

 “So, did he make significant contributions to your communities?”

Danny tilts his head. “Good little kid to troublemaker teen.  I wasn’t around to see the good part…I only saw the troublemaker when I lived at his house for a year--the peak of his rebelliousness” Danny pauses. “He was such a good kid, so it really stood out when he started acting up. I remember… When Ben got out of a halfway house, I hadn’t seen him in a year. He was completely different. Mean to me, his mom…” He drops his eyes “I guess if you’re not a hard ass in there…”

“You get chewed alive.” I add.

Danny nods. “I hated some of the things he did. Like when I was living there I would feed the dogs and cook once in a while. Ben did none of it.”

“So how would you describe your relationship with Ben?” I smile.

Danny laughs. “We were close…we had a weird relationship. Ben did things with me that he didn’t do with other people. When I lived at his house Ben wanted to take a thirty-minute walk and turned into a two-hour walk because Ben got lost. But I didn’t mind. It turned into a bonding experience. You know when you’re so out of it you laugh at anything?”

I nod.

“Yeah, that was us. We were laughing at anything, even if it wasn’t all that funny.”

Danny pauses. “I also remember at high school a guy tried to jump me, but before the kid said anything Ben beat the guy up.”

 Danny makes eye contact. “He was all about family…you know that.”

I nod. “He loved his family very much.” I remember the photographs of his family on his bedroom wall.

“He also…wasn’t open about certain things. I remember this one time Ben reeked of marijuana. I confronted him about it. It was so obvious and yet he still wouldn’t admit to it…”

“So stubborn…” I shake my head.

Overall, Danny’s interview was very valuable for me. As a researcher, I appreciated Danny’s perspective because it was different from my own. I met Ben in a point in his life in which he was healthier, and Danny was not able to experience that.

Sandy’s Phone Interview5

Ben described Sandy as his second mother. When he was alive, it was obvious Ben was more nervous for me to meet her then his own parents. Unfortunately, I met Sandy two days after his death. Sandy is Caucasian, mid 50s, and a schoolteacher. Due to time constraints, we were limited to a phone interview.  Sandy had known Ben since he was three, because his older sisters were friends with her daughter. Sandy explained how she shared multiple communities with Ben, including friends, family, school, criminal justice, golf, and that they lived in the same neighborhood.

 I asked, “Would you like to share anything before we get started? I have some generic questions, but I’m far more interested in what you have to say.”

Sandy began by listing the different communities. However, due to poor cell phone service she cut in and out of reception and was disconnected. When we resumed our discussion I moved on, even though I did not hear all the details she had given me about the communities.

“How would you describe your relationship with Ben?”

“I was like his mom.” I feel her thoughts brewing. “There were times that were rough…especially when he was 16 or 17. Ben lived at my house while he was under house arrest. So I was able to stop him from doing stuff.”

“Wow, he was lucky he had you.” I smile.

Sandy related to me how she went to great lengths to ensure his safety. “I remember this one time I showed up at his apartment…when he lived with his bad friends…the one guy was really scary. I was trying to get Ben out but he would have none of it. I ended up getting him kicked out…he was so mad!”

Even though Sandy had a parental relationship, as Ben matured they developed a close friendship. “We would go out and eat…talk…a lot. He would really open up and share his emotions. When he came around, he really started to set goals and became open minded. I think you had something to do about that.”

I claimed, “If anything, Ben made me more open minded and less judgmental. He made me a better person!”

This spurred Sandy to mention how Ben, “always had strong morals…and he always held onto those morals.” She starts laughing. “Even when he was angry with his family, and going through a hard time, he always loved his family. All he wanted to do was make his father proud…”

“He also helped me out!” She laughed, “I had a flat tire, and Ben really didn’t want to come out, but he came and helped me anyway. He was always doing what he could to help…But he was so impulsive…At school I have his picture set up right next to my kids…I couldn’t put his picture up this year. I knew if I did the children at school would ask who it was. So I didn’t put any pictures up this year…”

After a moment, Sandy added, “I remember Ben hiding from my administration after he was suspended from school. I didn't want to leave him alone so I had him stay with me in the classroom.”

 “Did he contribute to his communities?”

“He helped out people around the house…he started getting into helping larger groups…”

“Have you interacted with his other communities?”

“Even though I’m Catholic, I went to the synagogue with Ben and his family.  I think it’s important to experience different cultures and learn from them.”

“What communities did you interact with after his passing?”

“Family, friends, school, and different teachers…”

 “Do you have anything else to add? Or something you want to say?”

Softly Sandy said, “A day hasn’t gone by that I haven’t thought about him…such a good person…nice to see his transformation…shine and come out.”

I also recognize what a valuable resource Sandy was, because she represented many of Ben’s communities stretched over time.  To emphasize how helpful she has been, Sandy sent me a text message on my phone the following day of our interview. She stated how her parents, “also loved Ben. He would spend time with my father when he was sick. My mother prayed for him all the time and even bought him a medal. He once met me in the casinos [in Atlantic City] just to help my father [because he needed a male to help him in the bathroom]. Ben was there to help.”

I felt like this interview was useful, because it helped me gain experience as a researcher. For example, while she shared memories and stories, I also shared some of mine to develop a relationship over the phone. I am learning that as a researcher it is important to develop a relationship with an interviewee. From my perspective, if the interviewer is honest and makes him or herself vulnerable, the interviewee will feel inclined as well.

Tara’s Phone Interview6

Tara is Ben’s Aunt, who felt more comfortable talking about her answers then writing them down on the questionnaire. I am grateful she expressed this to me, because as her son, Danny pointed out, she would not have been able to answer the questions the way in which she wanted.

I met Tara the day of the funeral. She is Caucasian, in her 50’s. When we spoke, I explained I had generic questions, but I was interested in what she had to say. By the end, I had not asked any preplanned questions.

Tara and I generally talked about Ben. I stated, “I think he was really insecure.” This launched Tara dissecting the possibilities of Ben’s insecurities.

“He lived in an atmosphere full of expectations…something he fought with, trying to live up to expectations like all parents have for their children. I think I understood the things he did…tried to please everybody What his father was able to accomplish, the status in life his father attained was probably 99 percent above the capabilities of most people. For that, I think Ben had high expectations for himself, and he was his own harshest critic. Ben had moments where he lost himself…couldn’t feel himself. I think he thought he would be loved if he was more ambitious, if he was smarter…he never realized that he was loved and that he was smart.”

“He was the last Himmelstein…the end…he closed the book…his father will never be the same.” She sighed. I can feel her sadness through her voice.

I sigh too. “I didn’t think of that...” Ben had sisters, and if they get married their last names would probably change. Ben was the last Himmelstein.

“Well…it’s possible if he had children they all would have been girls…but now we’ll never know. He would have passed the name down.” Tara says softly.

I wait for Tara to collect her thoughts. “I could tell you so many things…the places we traveled…the memories… Ben was very close with Seth (Danny’s younger brother), only a month apart. He tried to teach Ben how to surf…but overall…things I remember is his relationship with his cousins…always laughing…always a pleasure to have over. I loved to be with the boys more so then the adults.”

She added, “I don’t know if you realized, but Ben physically had problems.”

“Yeah, he had premature arthritis, I remember on one of our dates I saw him limping. I asked him about it. He was surprised that I noticed, because he was trying to hide it…after that he didn’t bother and I could really see how stiff he was…” I comment.

I hear Tara’s acknowledgment over the phone. “That never stopped him. He was so persistent…tried to keep up with the boys. I know his ankles would kill him and I never heard him complain.”

“I never heard him complain either…”

“I remember, when Ben was younger…he would get jealous. Like if Seth was on the beach and met a friend.  Ben didn’t want Seth spending time with someone else. Ben had a possessive nature. I don’t think he liked that about himself…he just wanted to belong. …” I hear Tara sigh.

 “So how did he impact you?” Tara asked.

 “He…gave me a new perspective about life. I was judgmental and didn’t even realize it. He opened me up.” I pause. “He was…my first love. He made me a better person. He also was so selfless. He cared about people more so than himself…that actually scared me, because I picked up on the fact he didn’t care about himself enough…”

There is a pause, as she mulls my words over. “So what you’re saying…he had your best interests at heart? He just wanted to show he cared….”

 “Yep” 

 “So you were judgmental…when you found out he wasn’t in school, did it turn you off?”

“When we were together he was going to Delaware County Community College and taking some courses...” I paused, “It didn’t really matter that he wasn’t a full time student. Just by talking with him, I could see he was smart. Brilliant. One of the smartest people I know…”

Tara chuckled, “He definitely was the debater…and very opinionated.”

“Now I’m asking you all these questions…” Tara states. “Did you know he did drugs?

I sigh, “I knew…he had to have gone through something. I knew that on our first date because he was just so…mature. He had a perspective on life that most 21-year- old guys don’t have. I guessed it was drugs…and I was right. Before he told me, he gave away little clues. In the past, my sister did drugs, so I understood clues when I saw them.”

 “Could I ask you… why do you think…he did it? Why did he take…heroin?”

 “I was the…last person to see him alive.” My thoughts drift back to May 5th. “He came to my apartment and surprised me. He took me out to dinner and we went back to my apartment. He uh…” I hesitate, “Well we had an argument over the speed of our relationship and I think he had a moment of insecurity…and he wanted to take a hit to feel better…one more time…”

“So he felt turned down…” Tara says slowly trying to figure out the situation.

“Yeah…I felt guilty for the longest time.”

She added, “But you realized that he would have done it some other time and it wasn’t your fault.”

“I know…that now…but it took a long time for me to realize that.”  I mumble. 

“Thank you for sharing…that must have been hard…”

 I shrug, thinking about how hard it was going to the funeral, seeing his coffin “Well…there’s been harder…”Next, I commented, “We spoke about drugs, how we used them in the past, and how we were done getting high. While we were going out, he told me he didn’t get high.”

Tara mentioned, “I think…addiction is something you’re born with or something that develops from insecurities, you struggle both emotionally and physically. Something you can grapple with for the rest of you life…I think I understand why Ben started. I did drugs, maybe it was because my father was very critical and opinionated. I thought he wouldn’t love me if I was fat or that if I was messy. I felt I had to please him, be smart to get his respect, otherwise my father wouldn’t love me or people would not like me. No matter how many people validate that you’re wonderful…you don’t believe it.” She paused. “He had higher than normal expectations, he too wanted to be respected and liked. Standards. But Ben had no one to blame but himself….I just wish he knew how wonderful he was…

 “It is such a great loss…When any child dies it is sad…I know he didn’t do it on purpose…very difficult to believe he had any intention of taking his life…stupid…and my brother, an emergency doctor found him. His death such a waste…I get very angry just thinking about it.”

“Me too…”

“He’ll never be the same...I feel a loss for my brother…and my nephew. His death affected people’s relationships with people negatively and positively. I feel like I have to walk on eggshells with [my brother].  Having my boys around, I can’t share accomplishments with my brother. No one in my family ever died out of order. Now I always want my boys around…I want them to know I love them everyday. Now I can’t talk to my brother about it. So…I guess you could say something that positive that came out it is that I realized what I have…and the negative is that I lost something with my brother…and my nephew.”

“Even you Sarah, in a short time he affected you. The fact you remain friendly with his family says something about Ben. He was unaware of the impact he had on people…sweetest person I ever met.” Tara paused.

“Some people don’t understand [Ben’s father’s] attachment to you. Easy as pie for me to see, but some people don’t understand it. The connection…Ben never dies with you. You are his link.”

The interview lasted forty minutes. I enjoyed Tara’s interview because we shared tough conversations and made ourselves vulnerable to each other.

I hung up the phone, and I thought how I related to others and my relationships with my communities. It occurred to me that I represent something bigger than myself. In a way, I represent a part of Ben. Now was my chance to shed light on my different communities in a different way. Inspire others the way that Ben inspired me and carry his memory wherever I go and share the kindness he showed me with others.

Results

I went into this project hoping to help the people in Ben’s communities. I wanted to develop a paper to show my audience different sides of Ben; however, I did not anticipate the project to benefit me and to discover how our relationships vary with every individual we encounter. As human beings, we see ourselves in one light, but others see us in another. This makes every one of us distinctive, because there is not only one perception or one definition of who we are. We have the chance to transcend into better individuals every day by constructing positive relationships.

Discovering how Ben interacted in his communities forced me to think about how I interact with my different communities and my relationships. I muse over how my peers at school, family, closest friends, and acquaintances view me. I wonder how I influence my communities. Now, I contemplate that if something happened, would I leave an impact on the individuals in my communities?

After conducting this research, I recognize the importance of relationships. The relationships we have with each other define and make us human. We are nothing without these relationships. We are who we are by the relationships we have with ourselves and with our numerous communities, whether family, friends, school, sports etc.

Ben taught me that we are who we have relationships with, in communities in which we are involved, and how we treat others and ourselves during daily interaction. We learn from Ben’s example to treat people with respect, because that is our essence—our relationships with others and ourselves.

Discussion

I recognize that if you do not build relationships with people, you are dead before you are placed in the ground. However, if you build positive relationships with people in your communities you live in the hearts and souls of people long after your life ceases on earth. Relationships, our communities, are what carry us from the living to the passed and from the passed to the living. Learn from this paper, build good relationships with people you meet, and you will be remembered in a positive light.

Acknowledgments

Thank you Dr. Kohl for encouraging me and offering a unique avenue to explore research. Thank you Becki, my patient sister for helping me edit my research. Thank you Korin for peer reviewing my autoethnography. Thank you respondents who made this research possible. 


Community Questionnaire

As a researcher, I am far more interested in what you have to say, and unfortunately, we are not meeting face to face, so this limits the types of questions I can ask. This section is strictly for your ideas, opinions, and feelings. Anything you want to say or share with me.  I have listed some suggested questions. You can answer all, none, or create your own responses to your own questions. Feel free to be as creative, and interpret them as you like. Tell me your story.

Is there anything you would like to tell me/what should I know?

How did Ben impact you?

What changes did you observe in your community after he passed?

How did your community cope with the loss of Ben?

Section 2 - Open Ended

Please answer the open-ended questions to the best of your ability.

1.) Have you interacted with Ben’s different communities after his passing? If so, please explain why and how and to what extent.

2.) How has your community transformed over time before and after Ben’s passing?

3.) If you have interacted with Ben’s different communities before and after Ben’s passing, were you able to continue a relationship with them?

Section 3 - Short Answer

1.) What was your relationship with Ben?

2.) How long have you known Ben?

3.) What community/communities did you and Ben have in common?

4.) Do you still carry out rituals/activities that you and Ben did before his passing? (If yes, please explain) 

 

Community Tree

 

Footnotes   

1 All names are changed to protect the identity of individuals. 

2 Questionnaire is attached at the end of the manuscript

3 Teddy was Ben’s German Shepard

4 In this section, I tried to capture the tone of the interview. Unfortunately, I did not have a recorder. This section is based on my memory and notes I took during the interview.

5 During the interview I took notes verbatim, however I edited down for efficiency.

6 During the interview I took notes verbatim, however I edited down for efficiency.


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