Erik Nielsen

When Tragedy Comes to Campus

Interim vice president for student affairs, Karen Lange, reflects on the sudden death of sophomore Erik Nielsen and the campus-wide response to the tragedy.
Karen Lange

Karen Lange

In December – as we approached the end of the fall semester – the St. Thomas community grieved the sudden loss of a dear friend. Erik Nielsen, a beloved sophomore, died unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm.

Public Safety and Residence Life staff members were with Erik until paramedics arrived and rushed him to the Hennepin County Medical Center. He was soon joined by his family from Iowa, as well as many family members, friends, students, faculty and staff from St. Thomas.

As people gathered to pray for Erik in the intensive care unit, many more of his classmates and friends were praying for him back on campus. But Erik never regained consciousness. It was a time of great sorrow for everyone who knew him.

The death of an undergraduate student is an unthinkable tragedy for a family. Parents prepare their children to leave home – many for the first time – with great anticipation. There are opportunities to forge lifelong friendships, to study the great wonders of our world and to begin to shape their bright futures. It is a time of hope and aspirations. But sadly, there also are rare occasions when tragedy interrupts daily life on our campus.

For those of us who are accountable for responding to a major injury or death of a student, it is by far the most challenging and daunting responsibility that we have. It is in these difficult moments that the true character of our community comes forth, and I am so appreciative of our students, staff and faculty.

As administrators, our goal is to respond to the needs of the family and the campus community in the best manner possible. We have a cross-departmental team (UART) that gathers during a time of campus crisis.

Team members provide support and resources for the family and friends of the student, as well as the rest of the campus community. This support includes opportunities for counseling, prayer and expressions of grief, as well as memorializing the student. In addition, faculty provide academic flexibility for grieving friends.

These are small but meaningful efforts that allow families and friends to focus on what matters most – the lives of their loved ones.

I have worked in student affairs at St. Thomas for more than 27 years and have responded to the injury or death of a student many times. Having a specific role helps me contribute in a meaningful way to a grieving family and campus community.

I have been inspired by family members and students who have displayed strong faith and hope during a time of despair. I have witnessed family members share their love, generosity and hospitality to their child’s friends while engulfed in their own grief. I have found strength and comfort in my Catholic faith as I have grappled with my own sorrow and grief. I have witnessed students from many different faith backgrounds come together in community to both grieve and celebrate a friend’s life.

During difficult times like these I am so appreciative of being at a faith-based university and grateful for the responsiveness and care that the faculty, staff and fellow students exhibit during this fragile time. It makes me proud to be a Tommie and proud to be a part of a caring campus faith community.

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