‘We love you daddy’

IU student shares her memories of loss

Photos of Alyssa Newland and her father are pictured. To ensure her dad is not forgotten, Newland's mom has made present-day photos photoshopped with her father in it.

“We love you daddy.”

These words are held in a voice box that needs new batteries in a navy-blue teddy bear, laying on 20-year-old IU student Alyssa Newland’s bed in the Christian Student Fellowship house.

A blue teddy bear lying on a bed. On its nose is the superman logo, and its fur contains a pattern including the superman logo rendered in a navy blue.

Jacob Spudich | IDS

Alyssa Newland’s Superman logo-marked teddy bear sits on her bed. Superman became her father’s nickname while he was alive.

When the voice box works you can hear three voices: Alyssa’s, her twin sister’s and their mother’s.

They gave the teddy bear to her father, Ronald Eugene Harlan Jr. (JR), as a gift when she was around 6, during his fight with colon cancer.

white woman with brown hair smiling while standing in front of a wall

Jacob Spudich | IDS

IU student Alyssa Newland poses for a portrait in her room at the Christian Student Fellowship. In freshman year, Newland found the Christian Student Fellowship, a community that has given her support.

A Superman logo marks the nose of the teddy bear. Superman became her father’s nickname while he was alive.

The teddy bear, which lived in storage until she started college, is a reminder for Alyssa to live her life like her dad did.

The teddy bear is a reminder that Dec. 23, 2023, marked 10 years since her father’s death.

The night before this anniversary, Dec. 22, 2023, which marks the last day her dad was alive 10 years ago, she spent time with her family at Assembly Hall, just like she did with her dad.

As a child, Alyssa attended IU basketball games with her dad. Now when she goes, she wears one of her dad’s hats.

She wore one of the hats, a white baseball cap with a red IU symbol, cheering at a women’s basketball game with her family Dec. 22, 2023. As she walked into Assembly Hall to cheer on the Hoosiers during their match against the Bowling Green Falcons, the smell of popcorn and freshly cooked pretzels filled the air, and cream and crimson packed the stands. The stadium’s energy with the band playing and the cheerleaders performing was the same energy that she fell in love with as a child with her dad.

Alyssa looked around; she was happy. Family surrounded her, and her twin sister stood by her side. As a former alto saxophone player in the IU marching band, she went over to the saxophone section to groove with them. Alyssa nodded her head, as she swayed her body forward and backward to the rhythm of the music.


In college, 40% of students have experienced a death of a relative or close friend by the time they are 18.

College students face unique challenges when they lose someone just before the start of college or during college, David J. Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, said.

Because students are transitioning from high school and being with family, to being away from family at college, Schonfeld said loss during this time can cause students to feel isolated or guilty for leaving grieving family members.

“You can feel very disconnected, from not only the supports, but also what’s happened,” he said. “You may not have been able to see the individual who died, before they died; in the same way, spend considerable time with them, or feel more guilty, you were away doing something for yourself, and your own career.”

It’s common for these students to experience trauma and grief triggers. Trauma triggers happens when something reminds an individual about how the person died. Grief triggers happens when something reminds an individual of the person who died, Schonfeld said. Such triggers can cause feelings associated with the trauma or loss to temporarily come back.

“Grief triggers are pretty invasive and hard to avoid,” he said. “It can be almost anything, all it has to do is remind you of the person who died.”

If an individual loses someone significant to them at a young age, they will start to appreciate more what the loss means as they get older. People will also be constantly reminded of their secondary losses, people and things one may lose related to a death, as one gets older, Schonfeld said.


As Alyssa has gotten older, her father’s absence has affected her differently then it did as a child. He couldn’t be there to see her graduate high school, get accepted to IU and become an adult.

Alyssa remembers waking up in the middle of the night, around 2 or 3 a.m. Dec. 23, 2013. With her bedroom door open, she saw the hallway light was on.

She heard her mom screaming, “Don’t leave us. Wake up.”

She got out of bed and walked into the hallway to see her dad laying in her mom’s lap on the living room floor.

He was on his back, unresponsive.

The first thought she had was to comfort her mom. Her twin sister, who came out of her room a few seconds later, hugged their mom.

He was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, one year before Alyssa was born. As a child she saw his pain through his mobility; at times he was in a wheelchair and used a cane to walk. Alyssa knew the pain her dad had gone through and knew if he died that day, it would be okay since he wouldn’t be in pain anymore.

“I just remember telling my dad it’s okay to leave,” Alyssa said.

It started in Alyssa’s parents’ bedroom that night.

Alyssa’s mom told her how her dad, heard his name called while in bed.

He woke up in the middle of the night which wasn’t unusual, her mom, Angela Newland, said.

“I hear names, do you hear names?” Angela remembers JR saying.

She thought he was dreaming.

She got his walker and they moved into the living room. He sat in his rocker chair while she got him pain medicine.

JR’s usual pain medicines weren’t working, so Alyssa’s mom called the hospice. They told her to give him other pain medicines kept in a bag in the fridge. When that didn’t work, Alyssa’s mom called them back and they told her to give him another dose.

At that point, Alyssa’s grandparents, her mom’s parents, came over, and her grandmother noticed how the time between each breath of JR’s increased.

Then, he stopped breathing.

He never missed church, Angela said, until that Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, the last day before he died.

“I still remember where I laid on the floor after he was gone,” she cried.

They celebrated Christmas at Alyssa’s mom’s parents’ house that year. Unlike other years celebrating Christmas together, they moved all of their gifts to the grandparents’ house so they could be together to open them.

They had a celebration of life party for him between Christmas and New Years, where over 300 people showed up. Almost a year later, Alyssa and her family moved into a new house, still in Bloomington.


JR was always positive and fun to be around, she said. He always had a smile on his face and would make others smile.

When Alyssa was 8 years old, she and her family went to Universal Orlando in the summer.

During their trip, they rode the water ride “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” in the Dr. Seuss section of the park.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky that day.

Alyssa was small for her age and scared of rides. Her dad calmed her nerves and sat on the outside of the seat, and she sat on the inside.

He had tubes near his kidneys and sutures at the time so he couldn’t get the bottom half of his body wet.

When they got off the ride, his khakis pants were soaked and Alyssa’s plaid shorts that matched her twin sister’s were dry. He had a smile on his face the entire time. All that mattered to him was Alyssa having fun.

Alyssa and her dad were best friends. He taught her how to have a positive outlook in life and show kindness to everyone.

As a child, Alyssa was bullied at school. It could have been kids picking on her being small or her One Direction backpack. Her favorite member was Niall Horan. But every time she came home, her dad would be there for her.

“I’ve always been his little girl,” she said.

Her dad taught her to have no regrets when leaving a chapter in life and entering a new one, like Alyssa adjusting from high school to college.


On her wall in her room at Christian Student Fellowship, a housing center for IU students who want to live in a Christian community, she has photos of her and her dad. One is a photo of them at a father-daughter dance when she was around 5 years old. At that time, he was at his healthiest in his fight against cancer.

20 photos arranged in a grid on a cinderblock wall. They depict smiling families.

Jacob Spudich | IDS

Alyssa Newland's wall of photos in her room are pictured. As Newland has gotten older, it's become difficult to keep memories of her father from when she was young.

The photo is a memory starting to fade in Alyssa’s mind. As she’s gotten older, it has become difficult to keep memories of him when she was that young.

To ensure he is not forgotten, Angela has present-day photos photoshopped with JR in it. One of them is a black and white photo that’s also on Alyssa’s wall. Originally the photo was her and stepsister on Alyssa’s 17th birthday, her mom later edited it to include her dad.

“Looking at that always brings a smile on my face knowing that he’s still here,” Alyssa said. “I always believe in the idea of your family is looking down on you, even if they are not here physically.”


One of her biggest waves of grief was when she was in middle school when she and her twin sister started to be in separate classes and pursue different extracurricular activities.

Her dad was not there to see her interests change and start new things like playing the alto saxophone.

When she was 16, her mom remarried. Since then, she has been able to count on her stepdad, Scott Newland, to be there for her on her off days. She saw a side of her mom light up that she had not seen for years.

Since she was 10, she’s experienced a rollercoaster of grief. In freshman year, she found a community that has given her support, Christian Student Fellowship.

There is always going to be something in life that reminds you of the person you lost, Angela said. Grief is unique to each person. Losing a dad as a child is different than losing a dad as an adult, she said.

“Your friendships, grief is going to be there, your church life it’s going to be there, your party life it’s going to be there,” Angela said. “No matter what, it’s going to influence every aspect of your life, for better or for worse.”

Being in college, Alyssa has struggled with wanting to be with her family all the time. Sometimes she will go home to her mom and stepdad’s house in Bloomington and watch game shows like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, her dad’s favorites.

She’s had to learn not to unravel the entirety of her dad’s death when she talks to people. Her biggest fear has been forcing people away because of it.

Death is sensitive and uncomfortable topic to talk about. There is no good conversation starter for it, Scott said.

“What color ribbon can I wear that says, ‘I’ve lost someone’ so people know?” Scott said.


A silver necklace lying on a wooden desk. An infinity sign hangs from a beaded silver chain.

Jacob Spudich | IDS

Alyssa Newland's infinity necklace is pictured. A picture of her and her family in San Francisco was located next to the wood box that held the necklace.

As Alyssa pulled out the silver infinity necklace that holds her dad’s ashes from a wood box in her desk drawer, a picture of her and her family in San Francisco laid next to it, which now hangs above her desk.

Her and her family went to San Francisco in September 2013, two months before her dad’s death.

Her favorite memory of that trip is walking on the Golden Gate Bridge and her dad and uncle play-fighting along the walk.

As they walked onto the middle of the bridge, her uncle, who was pushing her dad in his wheelchair, wanted to do a trust fall with him.

So, her uncle pushed the wheelchair forward and as it fell backward, he caught it.

Alyssa always thinks about the smile her dad put on her face during that trip.

“What I really admire about my dad, was that no matter what he was going through, he wanted to put other people’s happiness before his own,” Alyssa said. “That’s what mattered to him, was making everyone else around him happy.”

Whatever hardship she is going through, she thinks about how her dad always had a smile on his face.

A family of four leaning on a railing with their backs to the camera, watching the sun set over water.

Jacob Spudich | IDS

A photograph of Alyssa Newland and her family in San Francisco is pictured. Newland and her family went to San Francisco in September 2013, two months before her dad’s death.