When Erica Catron ’19MA decided to go back to school three years ago she knew as a non-traditional student she would face more challenges than others. As a married woman in her 40s, raising a young boy and taking care of a household, she figured she’d have a lot to juggle with her interpersonal communication graduate studies. But what she couldn’t expect in her last six months of studies was her mother dying from breast cancer, later finding out she too had the disease — at Stage 4 — and then shortly after losing her husband, a Vietnam veteran and retired Air Force major.
“It was difficult setting up a memorial for my husband, making sure my son was OK, getting my assignments in on time and figuring out my own health,” Catron says. “There was a lot going on at the time.”
For the past two years, Catron has experienced back pain and fatigue and was preparing to have surgery this year. In 2011, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and when she became ill at the end of 2017, Catron moved her mother in her home to help care for her. Her mother’s condition became worse in November 2018 and she passed away weeks later. Catron wouldn’t know until five months later during her mother’s final months she too had breast cancer.
“It was a little tough taking care of my mom and going to school, but your parents are there to take care of you when you’re born,” Catron says. “Why wouldn’t I take care of my mom when she needed to be taken care of?”
But by the end of this past spring’s semester, Catron managed to meet all of her graduation requirements except completing her thesis, which focused on how military families dealing with loss viewed media coverage of casualties from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. With uncertainty surrounding her health, Admissions Specialist Kelsey Loftus and Professors Sally Hastings and Ann Miller stepped in to help make sure she could meet her goal. They helped Catron switch her degree to the non-thesis option and turn her work into the required applied project instead.
“I needed a way to graduate that wasn’t the traditional way. I was very fortunate to have professors that understood I needed help and guidance,” Catron says. “If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here. It was their dedication to this university that allowed me to complete my education at a level that I’m satisfied with.”
Since she was a teenager, Catron had worked in radio under the name Erica Kay. The Boston native remembers her interest in the field started when she was about 5.
“I had a recorder and I would record myself talking into it and I would listen to myself talking back. I would call into radio shows in Boston when I was 10,” Catron says.
Throughout her years of working in the Top 40 format, she always loved interacting with listeners and hearing their stories, understanding why they would request certain songs. Eventually her work would bring her to Florida’s panhandle, where she met Roger, who became her husband for eight years.She says he encouraged her to go back to school and pursue a master’s degree.
“I’m glad I went back to school because venturing into interpersonal relationships was what I needed to change careers,” Catron says. “I knew I wanted to work with bereaved military families.”
This shift in focus came after years of seeing how the death of a childhood friend, Jared Monti, would impact his parents. Monti was an Army soldier who died during a 2006 battle in Afghanistan and posthumously was awarded a Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama years later. Near Memorial Day in 2011, Monti’s dad spoke on NPR about his son’s death and how he would drive his sons’ truck every day to feel connect to him. This broadcast would later inspire a No.1 Billboard hit titled I Drive Your Truck by Lee Brice. With the release of the song, more members of military families spoke out about similar habits motivated by maintaining a connection to their lost loved ones.
“In my research I wanted to understand why these people are referred to as life-long grievers.”
“In my research I wanted to understand why these people are referred to as life-long grievers because it always seemed like they were sad,” Catron says. “I wanted to figure out what it was in their daily routines that triggered that sadness over and over and over again.”
Catron suspected part of the grief came from the media’s portrayal of war casualties, so she explored this topic within some of her studies. In her final project, she worked with Hastings to conduct a study on why family members of the deceased choose to listen to certain music, an interest that tied back to her days in radio.
When Catron started pursuing her degree in 2016, she envisioned working for an outreach program at Veterans Affairs or at a national cemetery. Now her focus is spending quality time with her 10-year-old son, Turner, and doing everything she can to have more of it, including taking chemotherapy medication.
“When you have Stage 4 cancer and are not given a time frame … you feel like you have to shove life-long lessons into an undetermined amount of time.”
“It’s hard when you have Stage 4 cancer and are not given a time frame. You feel like you have to shove life-long lessons into an undetermined amount of time,” Catron says. “I don’t want to overwhelm [my son], but there are certain things I want him to walk away with –– one of them being empathy. … I want my son to also see the importance of seeking continuous education, no matter what field you’re in.”
Although it has been a difficult time for Catron and her son, she emphasizes that this challenging time serves the purpose of building his character as a strong person. She hopes he can offer a sympathetic ear and just be there for people, like she has tried to do throughout her life.