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Family tragedies serve to prepare Weber State grad for future as grief counsellor

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Standard-Examiner | May 5, 2024
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Weber State University student David Carrillo gives an address during a ceremony for graduates from the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences on Saturday, April 27, 2024.
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This undated photo shows David Carrillo's son, Lucien, who died from congestive heart failure in 2020 at age 3.
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This undated photo shows David Carrillo's sister, Evaluna, who died from suicide in 2022.
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David Carrillo, a student in the Weber State University Department of Social Work and Gerontology, is pictured Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, with his service dog, Deacon.

OGDEN — J. David Carrillo has suffered his share of losses in life, but he’s determined not to let them hold him back.

In fact, the 34-year-old Clearfield resident said he plans to achieve victory after victory to honor those losses and to help others who are grieving from their own losses.

“Grief can come in many forms,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be just the loss of a loved one. People can grieve over losing their sight, like I did, or losing a limb or losing what was once good health.”

Carrillo spoke about his life during Weber State University’s graduation ceremony last weekend, where he earned the high honor of summa cum laude in social work.

“Once I was accepted into the social work program, I found my Weber family and I really couldn’t imagine going anywhere else,” he said. “What drew me into social work was the people. When people excel and I’m able to be a part of that, it makes me excel as well.”

When Carrillo was just 2 weeks old, he was diagnosed with Axenfeld-Rieger syndrome, a genetic condition primarily affecting the eyes but also can cause problems with the teeth, thyroid and heart.

After his diagnosis, his family moved from Ecuador to Miami, which was only one of three places in the world that treated his condition. When he was 7 years old, he lost his vision in his right eye.

“That was hard, but I was able to get by,” he said. “In 2005, we moved to Utah and I went to Bountiful High School. While I was in high school, I was working at Domino’s and that’s where I met my wife, Sadie. We actually realized we were both attending the same high school and right after we graduated, I snagged her up and married her.”

Things were going well for Carrillo, but then his condition threw another blow his way. When he was 24 years old, he lost his vision in his right eye.

“I was in denial because I had lost vision in that eye three times but it always came back,” he said. “It took me a few years to get the courage to get back to work, but a training program taught me how to adapt my lifestyle.”

Carrillo adopted a service dog, a white Labrador retriever named Deacon, and learned how to travel on his own and use assistive technology. Then he decided to enroll at WSU where he also found work on campus as an assistant advisor in disability services.

Then in 2020, his 3-year-old son, Lucien, who also had the same disorder as Carrillo, died of congestive heart failure.

“I was in the middle of a summer class on a Zoom call when my wife called me and said they were rushing him to the ER,” he said. “Twenty minutes after I got to the hospital, he passed away. It was just sudden. The day before he had been outside playing and running the fastest he had ever run before. Then in 2022, my sister, Evaluna, took her life.”

Carrillo said the pain of losing his son and sister was almost unbearable.

“When I lost my son, I vacillated between wanting to work with kids or wanting to work in grief and trauma. And then when my sister died, I decided my pathway would be grief and trauma,” he said. “The only way you can get through this kind of pain is by trying to stay positive and keep going. That weight can bring you down and keep you down if you let it.”

Carrillo said not only did he keep going, but he relied on his faith as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to help carry him through his grief.

“Oh that has helped me 100%,” he said. “And surrounding myself with people who were supportive. I don’t think it’s good to hide your grief. You need to feel what you’re feeling and not hide it. Stay close to people who will support you and understand what you’re going through.”

Today, Carrillo stays busy working at WSU and hanging out with his wife, three children (Mae, Adela and Elora), his dog Deacon and his cat Buffy, who lost one of her legs when she was a kitten.

“We had to have her,” he said. “We have a family full of people with disabilities, so we thought it was fitting to bring Buffy into the family too.”

Carrillo said he plans to begin working on his master’s degree and has already secured a job with a local counseling center.

“To me, being blind is just a nuisance. It’s not going to stop me. In fact, all of my victories will be my son and sister’s victories too and all my accomplishments will also be theirs,” he said. “One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Disability is not inability. It is adaptability,’ and it’s absolutely true. I know the sting grief brings but I see a bright future ahead of me, and I will say Weber State is the hallway that has taken me from the life I had to the life I want.”


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