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Published October 19, 2013, 09:00 PM

Concordia junior’s tragic losses help influence campus understanding of family, grief

MOORHEAD – Courtney Backen resented Family Weekend her first semester at Concordia College. The annual event inviting parents to campus made her feel like everyone had the perfect family unit, except her.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

MOORHEAD – Courtney Backen resented Family Weekend her first semester at Concordia College. The annual event inviting parents to campus made her feel like everyone had the perfect family unit, except her.

Backen was adopted as a baby from South Korea. When she was 4 or 5, both her parents were diagnosed with terminal illnesses. They both died when she was a teenager.

Backen evaded the subject of family when it came up. Her story of loss didn’t fit the cookie-cutter mold she perceived at the private college.

But Backen also wanted to get involved on campus. She noticed the upperclassmen on campus sporting the cream or maroon sweaters designating Family Weekend and Homecoming committee members.

She wanted to be on the Homecoming committee, but interviewed for both to increase her chances. When she was selected for Family Weekend committee, she was mad, but didn’t want to resign.

She helped plan the next Family Weekend, even though she didn’t think she’d participate.

“It made me branch out,” she says about the committee. “It gave me that experience that I’d always resented.”

After that first year, she became passionate about Family Weekend, and was ready to open up about her story.

“I think I am so deeply involved in non-biological families, creating those ties,” she says. “It’s a matter of letting people into your life who may not be your biological family but who support you and care about how you are.”

As chairwoman of last month’s Family Weekend and by speaking publicly on campus about her grief, Backen has opened up a dialogue at Concordia about loss, love and what family really means.

Loving parents, shocking loss

Backen says her childhood was marked by both her parents being in and out of hospitals. Her dad, Daryle, had non-Hodgkins lymphoma and her mom, Deb, a rare blood cell disorder.

At times, she played the role of caregiver, but she says their illness meant they spent a lot of time together.

“They were really, really loving,” Backen says.

Her parents came to her school events. They took family vacations.

“They really shaped my moral compass, my personality,” she says. “They set me on a good foundation.”

Daryle Backen died in 2008, between Courtney’s freshman and sophomore year of high school. Deb Backen died in 2009, as Courtney started her junior year of high school.

She described their deaths as shocking. Though inevitable, Backen said she believed they wouldn’t die because they’d outlived life expectancies for so long.

After her parent’s deaths, Backen lived with her paternal grandmother in Bloomington, Minn., with whom she had a close relationship, and graduated from her high school in Burnsville, Minn.

“I definitely shut down about it, convinced everyone I was fine,” she says.

Karen Carlson, Family Weekend adviser and associate director of alumni relations, had gotten to know Backen during her first year on the committee, but didn’t learn about her parents until Backen applied to be committee chairwoman.

Carlson says the campus has long stressed the importance of having a Cobber family, consisting of professors, coaches, advisers and friends.

“For her, it was doubly important to have a good support system,” Carlson says. “I think she’s realized that more.

“This is her extended family,” Carlson adds.

Unpacking her grief

Backen compartmentalized her grief as a teen, separating personal from professional.

Slowly, she’s started to unpack that box, important for her personal growth and to help others, Carlson says, noting Backen is more mature and has a support system that allows her to do so.

In September, Backen led a concurrent session during Concordia’s symposium on happiness, titled “Growing from Grief: How We Rebuild Happiness.” She talked about her parents, and how she gained resilience.

Grief is messy, Backen says, adding there’s no right way to grieve. People who experience grief shouldn’t be forced to share or open up, and have more emotions and feelings than what’s on the surface.

Backen, who is studying English literature, classical studies, communication and history, also took part in a recent student panel about grief and loss, arranged by the campus pastor.

The Rev. Tim Megorden says dozens of students experience the death of a grandparent each year. A handful more have someone close to them die unexpectedly.

Visiting with these students, it became clear more conversation was needed about grief, loss and how Cobbers could support each other, he says.

For Backen to share her story has taken courage, Megorden says, as wounds open at unexpected times and revealing her grief is to risk vulnerability.

Backen admits she’s built a wall, creating the image of a perfect student leader.

“I have good days and bad days. It’s really, really scary to let other people see that,” she says.

Family Weekend, full circle

Backen’s Family Weekend experience came full circle at the event last month, which included Friday night entertainment, a Saturday brunch, ice cream social and talent show, and an all-campus worship on Sunday.

Backen’s grandmothers, Beverly Backen of Bloomington and Audrey Allen of Spirit Lake, Iowa, came to Moorhead for the weekend, as well as an uncle and an aunt. It was the first time her family had been on campus.

It was a special opportunity to bring these two parts of her life together, says Courtney, who also plays in Concordia’s band and is part of Cobbers for PACODES, an organization that helps the people of Panyijar County in South Sudan.

“I got to share with my family something I worked so hard on and am so passionate about,” she says. “They got to see my Cobber family up here.”

At this year’s Family Weekend registration, Carlson says she noticed more students attending with a roommate’s family. Families have been encouraged to “adopt a Cobber.” She attributes this to Backen’s influence.

“Her sharing that message is so important for those who have been through situations, who’ve had loss,” Carlson says. “She has made people aware.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556