Dealing with Jim Miller's death

Time and community will heal the wounds inflicted on the Goshen College community after Jim Miller’s death on Oct. 9. But the sadness and new awareness of safety will not disappear quickly.

When Miller, a biology professor, was murdered in his home close to the campus, not only did students and faculty lose a member of their community, they were also made aware of their own vulnerability.

“On the same day that we heard about Jim’s death, we decided we needed to get a dog,” said Niles Graber-Miller, a sophomore whose father, Keith Graber-Miller, is a professor. “It seemed so random, and it was directed to someone who was too familiar, too close … A dog is an effective way of keeping people away and is a non-lethal alternative.”

Lizzy Diaz, a senior in one of Miller’s classes this semester, said that she tries not to be scared for her safety but can’t help worrying sometimes.

“I have had moments when I am at the computer lab really late, and then I have to walk back to my apartment by myself and I feel fear,” said Diaz. “I keep telling myself, I will not let this scare me, [but] it is hard to imagine that this happened so close to campus … in what I thought was a “safe” neighborhood.”

Bob Yoder, the campus pastor, noted that the effects of Miller’s murder extend beyond the campus and into the Goshen community.

“I’ve noticed a lot more lights on in the street, and we’re paying much more attention that our doors are locked,” said Yoder.

However, some students say that they don’t feel like the murder has made them less safe. Ted Maust, a senior, said that even though he lives off-campus, he doesn’t feel like his safety has been compromised.

“[The murder] doesn’t seem systematic, it seems more random,” said Maust.

While many students have fallen back into the routine of school, Miller’s name and the murder are topics of discussion that arise between friends and with people outside of the campus.

“I think the broader community is still conscious of it all, so it keeps the campus conscious as well and puts it on the table for discussion,” said Maust.

To make sure that Goshen takes time to remember Miller, Yoder has tried to be attentive to the spiritual needs of the grieving campus. A formal memorial service is being planned for November 7 and a group of faculty and students will put together the memorial which will celebrate Miller’s life on campus.

The strongest emotions felt by the Goshen College community are from those who knew Miller best. Miller was a professor at the college for 31 years and taught higher-level biology classes. He taught two classes and mentored 10 students in research this semester.

Ryan Sensenig, the biology department chair, said that faculty and students are aware of each other’s grief and try to help one another along in the mourning process.

“The differences between professors and students dissolved as we tried to navigate something that wasn’t on the syllabus,” said Sensenig.

When Miller’s students gathered for class for the first time after his absence, Sensenig said they spent most of the class telling jokes–something that Miller integrated into every lesson.

At another point in a class, students were given photocopies of Miller’s notes to study with.

“There were jokes in the margins, whiteout marks and hand-written additions to the notes,” said Sensenig. “I think the students enjoyed the tangible representation of his repertoire of teaching.”

A key to the healing process has been to let each person decide how they want to mourn. For example, the students researching with Miller were given the option of having a new faculty mentor who would help them continue with their research or leaving it on hold until a later date.

“We’re trying to be as transparent and open and honest with the each other as possible,” said Sensenig. “We’re working with the students to give feedback.”

For Sensenig, the support offered from outside Goshen College campus has been helpful. Alumni and colleagues have emailed their sympathy and offered to help the college in different ways.

“I’ve received emails from all over and offers by professionals to Skype-in lessons for his classes,” said Sensenig.

To cover Miller’s two classes this semester, the college has hired Rich Manalis, a close colleague of Miller’s, and Douglas Swartzendruber, a biology alumnus of Goshen College from Colorado. Manalis will cover the Vertebrate Physiology research lab and Swartzendruber will teach Human Pathophysiology.

“The two candidates are closely connected to the college and voluntarily offered assistance,” said Sensenig.

“The community at the college, which includes alumni, is connected to each other and those things help us to heal and realize the connection that we have with others,” said Sensenig.

This network of connections embraces those most affected by the loss and helps them to pick up the pieces. For one student who was working with Miller to prepare for an upcoming medical school interview, Sensenig said that a retired medical doctor volunteered to work with her and prepare her for the experience.

All the help offered by the community has helped the science department deal logistically with the loss, and allowed the department to focus more energy on grieving Miller’s death.

“I think that the thing that has most helped me in coping is talking with others who share my pain,” said Diaz. “So many emotions have taken over me and I still have trouble dealing with it. But talking about it, it makes it real. Only by accepting what happened can I begin to cope. It’s a process and it’s going to take time.”

[Editor’s note: Originally published in The Mennonite]

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Written by Sara Alvarez

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