Run a Google search on Moriah Panter, and a few accounts appear of what happened on April 13, 2012.
News reports and family interviews reveal Panter died of a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot that traveled from her leg to her lung. But no one talks about the aftermath of Panter’s death – or of the five other University of Nebraska-Lincoln student deaths between 2011 and 2012.
Earl Hawkey, director of registration and records, said four students died in 2011, and two in 2012 – one of which was Panter, a sophomore business marketing major.
In the aftermath of a student’s death, family and friends face a new barrier every day. From unpacking a dorm room, to dealing with financial aid, to processing the grief, they, like Panter’s family, are still overwhelmed even months after the news.
The night before she died, Panter told her friend Tamara Kendall she felt sick. But she still showed up to Spanish class in Oldfather Hall, where Kendall, now a sophomore psychology major at Hastings College, said she looked ill.
Soon after the beginning of class, Panter went to the bathroom. She didn’t come back. When Kendall went to check on her, she found her friend had collapsed.
That wasn’t Panter’s first fainting spell. She’d had another a month before, Kendall said. But Panter had woken up after a few minutes, and Kendall said a University Health Center employee told her friend it was just fatigue.
This time, Panter didn’t wake up. Kendall called 911, and soon the EMTs arrived and stabilized Panter. They told Kendall that Panter would be OK. Still, she followed the ambulance to Bryan LGH East.
Nadine Stuehm – Panter’s mother – was already on her way to Lincoln for her job as a lecturer and placement coordinator at the University of Nebraska Kearney when she got the call. But in light of the earlier fainting incident, Stuehm said she was unfazed.
“I’ll pick her up, it’ll be fine,” she remembered thinking.
Charlotte Evans, assistant chief of UNL police, said tending to the student takes first priority for emergency responders. So a witness often ends up making phone calls to family members first, Evans said.
If a student is found dead at the scene, UNL police will contact the parents’ local law enforcement after investigation. Local officers then tell the parents face-to-face.
Panter hadn’t told her mom she felt ill on the phone that morning. She was excited to come home for a weekend visit, Stuehm said.
When Kendall arrived to the hospital, staff told her that her friend was dead.
“At first, it didn’t register,” Kendall said. “Then it hit me, and I broke down.”
But staff told Kendall not to tell Stuehm of her daughter’s death, since they hadn’t notified her yet. On the phone, Stuehm tried to coax Kendall to go back to classes, saying that Panter would be fine.
Looking back, Stuehm understands why Kendall stayed.
“I’m sure she knew,” Stuehm said.
When Stuehm arrived at the hospital, front desk staff led her to a private waiting room – her medical background told her that was a bad sign. There, she met a hospital chaplain. She insisted on seeing her daughter, and the man left.
Shortly after, Kendall entered the room where Stuehm sat alone.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
That was when Stuehm knew. When the doctors told her the news, Stuehm just stared back at them.
“There wasn’t anything to say at that point,” she said.
Stuehm’s first thought wasn’t to grieve – first, she had to tell Moriah’s sister, Cecilee Panter.
If Cecilee, a senior special education major at UNK, hadn’t been as busy at the home she shared with Stuehm, she might have found out from Facebook, she said. After contacting professors and employers, Cecilee allowed herself to grieve. In Lincoln, Stuehm had to answer questions first.
“What was Moriah’s medical history?”
“Could anyone else answer questions?”
Navigating the blur
The news still had to be delivered to Moriah’s dorm. Associate Director of Residence Life Keith Zaborowski said if a student hasn’t already found out his or her roommate died, an in-house counselor, assistant director and director of residence life deliver the news together.
The roommate can stay in the dorm room or move to a new one, depending on his or her wishes and available accommodations. At a floor meeting, other residents are notified. Counselors and directors stay afterward, offering support, Zaborowski said.
Moriah’s cousin stopped at the dorm on his way from Omaha, grabbing bracelets, jackets and dresses for the funeral, Cecilee said.
That afternoon, Stuehm arrived home to a packed house.
“This is it; they’re just going to take care of me.” she remembered thinking. The rest, she said, was a blur.
Stuehm’s sister wrote Moriah’s obituary while others helped with arrangements. Friends and family, including the girls’ father who lives in Hildreth, stayed at Stuehm’s home all week.
That Wednesday, 500 people attended Moriah’s funeral – many donning pink, Moriah’s favorite color. She even had a pink casket - Cecilee’s idea. And you couldn’t find a single pink flower in Kearney that day. Moriah’s funeral sold them out.
Employees of Hastings Books, Music and Video store, where Moriah worked, wore custom-made T-shirts. Butterflies were released after her funeral, something Stuehm said Moriah wanted at her wedding.
The next Friday, with two friends’ help, Stuehm and Cecilee went through Moriah’s dorm, where Moriah’s roommate left a note with condolences, Stuehm said.
But despite offers of help from the university and a floral arrangement from Moriah’s floor, when Stuehm and Cecilee arrived with two friends to collect Moriah’s things, no one would make eye contact or even acknowledge their presence – except for one young man who held a door open for them.
Stuehm said the people at UNL didn’t know what to do with them and were at a loss as how to help.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to put up with us either,” she said.
For Stuehm, that day was the hardest because it’s the first she can remember after her daughter’s death.
Life insurance covered hospital bills. Federal scholarships were refunded - a surprise, Stuehm said, since only a few weeks remained in the semester.
Federal student loans would’ve been forgiven, said Craig Munier, director of the office of scholarships and financial aid. Not all private loans allow such forgiveness, Munier said.
‘Still on Autopilot’
Moriah is buried in Kearney’s cemetery. Stuehm can see the evergreen treetops of the lot from her kitchen window. Around the block and through a gate, a hot-pink Shepard’s hook, decorated with flowers, lawn ornaments and ribbon serves as a headstone until Stuehm and Cecilee are ready for one.
Stuehm said she can ask the University Health Center anything but cannot receive a copy of Moriah’s autopsy without a lawyer.
Jim Yankech, associate director of the Health Center, said Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act laws come into play when local hospital records of a student who dies are sent to the health center. The U.S. Department of Education website said it’s a student’s choice if parents access records after the student turns 18. The choice is whether parents can access all or none of the student’s records, with no picking and choosing what can and cannot be accessed, such as grades or medical reports.
Stuehm had no reason to believe Moriah was sick, she said. Moriah suffered headaches, which made her unable to attend school in the fall, but was well by spring. While medication for the headaches increased chances of blood clots, Stuehm said the headaches themselves were irrelevant to Moriah’s death.
“All I want to know is, was she sick? Did we miss something?” Stuehm said.
But she hasn’t asked any questions.
“There are some days when I think I’m ready, and then, you know … ” As Stuehm trailed into tears, looking out her back window, Cecilee finished.
“It’s not going to make us feel any better,” she said.
Stuehm still receives cards, phone calls and company, all of which keep her going. She left UNK for the summer early, spending days on her deck, just thinking. She visits Moriah’s burial spot every day.
Cecilee also left school early but came back for finals. She didn’t want to return in the fall, but she did, and now she’s taking her time to graduate. She’s moved out of her mother’s home but said she still spends time there.
The tough parts are things you never think about, Stuehm said. She can’t sit down and read something she always loved. When Stuehm sees Cecilee pull up in her sister’s car, she still feels a pang of excitement.
“I think we’re still on autopilot,” Stuehm said. “We get up, and we do what we have to do.”
Bible verses, crosses and pictures of the sisters cover the walls and fill the tables and shelves in Stuehm’s living room. Both Cecilee and Stuehm said they aren’t any less sure of their Christian faith since Moriah’s death.
“I think I’ve spent a lot of time being mad at God,” Stuehm said. “But I just know.”
While Cecilee said she’s asked “why,” she doesn’t doubt her sister is in heaven.
“I know she wouldn’t come back,” Stuehm said as she began to cry. “I know she’s very happy.”
One of Moriah’s cousins leaves Moriah flowers every time he passes through Kearney in addition to calling her cell phone every Monday, as he always has.
The family won’t shut off her cell phone until everyone’s ready, Stuehm said.
Cecilee said Moriah’s death was just as hard on her cousins, who have extended the same support Stuehm received from her friends.
“They lost a sister too,” she said.
What isn’t hard, Stuehm and Cecilee agreed, is talking about Moriah.
“We talk about her all day, every day,” Stuehm said. “I think the hard part is, we don’t want people to forget.”
Cecilee won’t forget a warm fall day when butterflies flew over Moriah’s burial spot – unlike her mother, she doesn’t visit the cemetery every day.
“I don’t need to go to feel my sister,” Cecilee said. “I see her in most things. I feel her in most things.”