Campus Life

Nursing student finds purpose as THON Family Bereavement Contact

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — THON weekend is a 3-day opportunity for families affected by childhood cancer to come together with the Penn State community, spread awareness and raise money in an uplifting and vibrant way. While the dancing this year has officially come to an end, the grief experienced by families whose children have lost their fight never ends. To help these families navigate life after loss, THON created bereavement family contacts.

When undergraduate nursing senior Nicholas Phillips isn’t hard at work in his nursing classes or clinicals, he is dedicating his time as a THON Family Relations Captain. He has been an active THON member for all four of his years as a Penn State nursing student.

Nick Phillips at THON, on the right. Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

As a Family Relations Captain, Phillips also serves as a bereaved family contact — the primary communicator between the Penn State THON community and the families that have lost a child to cancer. This role is critical, said Phillips, to help to ensure that, even though the family’s child is no longer here with them physically, THON keeps their memory, inspiration and wisdom alive, and that every family feels that they always have a place in the community.

As a bereaved family contact, Phillips communicates with each of his 11 assigned bereaved families at least once a week,  either via email, text, or through in-person events. Some THON events are specific to bereaved families, like the bereaved family breakfast the THON captains hold in the beginning of the THON year. THON also recently held a bereaved family panel, where families come together to talk about the biggest challenges faced by the THON organization and the biggest challenges faced by the bereaved families themselves.

Other events that THON holds for bereaved families are the Perpetual Pennants Project and the candlelight vigil. The Perpetual Pennants Project is an event where a string of pennants are tied together, each bearing a child’s name, date of birth, date of death, and a commemoration that their families felt embodied them. The pennants are read aloud so everyone can hear their stories and share anything that resonated with them, like a personal connection or a quote that made them smile, laugh, or which inspired them.

The candlelight vigil event was held a week before THON as a way to celebrate the children, said Phillips. The pennants from the Perpetual Pennants Project were laid out with candles above each. People from all over the Penn State community came together to hear the family’s stories, write letters to the families, and commemorate the children. Between the two events, over 3,000 people attended to show their support.

Phillips, as a THON captain, is required to attend all THON events, with the THON wrestling match and Teen Night #2 at a laser dome being his favorite. He also said that his THON position is relevant to his nursing major, and emphasized the importance of simple human compassion alongside maintaining professionalism.

“It [THON captain position] requires a lot of empathy and sympathy for these families. Even if things are tough, it's better to have someone that's there for you no matter what. It helped me build the relationships and [showed me that] even when things are at their worst, you can still be a light for the family just by doing one kind act, no matter how seemingly small," said Phillips.

Being an external support system for grieving THON families is not unfamiliar territory to Phillips, but he, too, personally knows the pain and struggle that comes with losing a loved one too soon. His brother, Jack Phillips, passed away in August 2017 from stage 4 brain cancer, also known as Glioblastoma multiforme, at the age of 23. Jack had been a recent Penn State graduate, majoring in geoscience in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

“This position [as bereavement family contact] is a way to make sure we’re always sharing photos and sharing memories. We're never going to stop talking about him," said Phillips. “This position enables me to do the same for the 70 to 80 families that have lost their children. We help carry on the legacy of their children but also for the thousands of others within the community.”

Last Updated February 28, 2020