Clarissa Ward, a rising junior who treated everyone in her life with profound kindness and empathy, passed away on June 20 at age 21 after a courageous battle with brain cancer.
Her father, Roger Ward, said Clarissa was passionate about people and cared immensely for others.
“She had this incredible spirit that really touched a lot of lives,” he said. “Everybody adored her, she was just so charming all the time.”
Abby Ward, Clarissa’s younger sister, echoed her father’s sentiments. She said Clarissa could best be described as the most caring and empathetic person you could possibly find.
“Just absolutely involved and such a great listener, and is going to care about everything you say,” Abby Ward said.
Her father said Clarissa was incredibly bright and always wise beyond her years. She was a top student and graduated from Clyde A. Erwin High School in Asheville in 2017. She continued to thrive academically at UNC, where she majored in psychology with a minor in religious studies.
In line with her nurturing spirit and steadfast desire to help others, her father said she had goals to become a counselor in a faith-based organization.
Her father and sister said she loved every minute she spent at Carolina. Even after she was diagnosed with cancer in October of her sophomore year, she continued to participate fully in campus life and embrace all that UNC had to offer.
“So now here’s a teenage girl, late teens, that’s gone back to college, walking to classes across the Carolina campus with brain tumors and making straight A’s,” Roger Ward said. “Making the Dean’s List, and walking to classes, and she wouldn’t even take the bus assistance. She wanted to walk and endure it and live normally. And she gave it all she got.”
Abby Ward said that Clarissa was incredibly humble, even as a model student with every reason to be proud of her accomplishments. She said that when Clarissa got into UNC and found out she had been awarded a full-ride scholarship, she was hesitant to let Abby advertise the news.
“I wanted to post so badly on Facebook, because I was like, ‘I want to show everybody how cool you are. This is crazy.’ And it took a really long time for me to convince her to let me talk about it,” Abby Ward said.
Abby Ward said Clarissa always took the time to help her younger sister and boyfriend with their schoolwork, even while Clarissa had her own academic responsibilities. She said Clarissa encouraged her to take advantage of the same enriching educational experiences Clarissa had during her time at Carolina. Last fall, Clarissa studied Christianity at L’Abri, a community study center where students from around the world gather to study any religion of their choice.
“That experience she said was the most life changing experience she’s ever had,” Abby Ward said. “She’s said, if you do anything, please go to L’Abri.”
Abby said that by the second semester of her first year, Clarissa had overcome the initial turbulence of transitioning to college and was fully immersed in campus life. She was involved with CRU, a Christian ministry on campus, where she formed many of the close friendships that would last throughout her time at UNC.
Juliet Townsend met Clarissa in bible study during their first year, and they remained close friends and roommates throughout her time at UNC. Townsend said one of her favorite memories with Clarissa is when they took a camping trip to Highlands, NC — but a faulty tent and pouring rain resulted in them sleeping in a friend’s car for the night.
“She was just laughing and giggling the whole time,” Townsend said. “We all were. She’s definitely one of those people when you’re in an uncomfortable or not ideal situation, she makes it more lighthearted and fun.”
Townsend said Clarissa was incredibly thoughtful and intentional in everything she did.
“She would write people letters. She had a lot of pen pals, and instead of just going to the store and buying a card, she would get a blank piece of paper and draw the card.”
Clarissa's sister said she was an incredible artist — constantly collaging, scrapbooking or drawing on index cards that she would give to friends and family.
“All of the art was so sentimental,” Abby Ward said. “It would be like, from my favorite movie. Or my mom’s favorite book. It was always super personal and directed right at you. Something that you loved.”
Her sister said that in her free time, Clarissa enjoyed visiting the museums in Raleigh. Townsend said she also loved to explore the botanical gardens and the arboretum or eat at Med Deli and go on Cookout runs.
Townsend said Clarissa’s strong faith left an impression on everyone in her life. She said Clarissa even took it upon herself to lead her friends in weekly bible studies when their previous leaders graduated.
“She was very God-focused and God-centered, which was very powerful and meaningful to her friends and her housemates and all of our roommates,” Townsend said. “That’s just ebbed and flowed throughout her entire life and everything she was involved in, any person she knew.”
Her father and sister both said that even throughout difficult treatments and numerous trips to the hospital, Clarissa handled every obstacle with grace. Roger Ward said the journey was challenging, but she and her family found comfort in faith and knowing she was looking forward to an eternal life.
“She was just always so stoic,” Roger Ward said. “She endured it, she took on the pain, she accepted her lot and she stayed kind the whole way through.”
The Ward family has plans to create a fountain memorial in her name at Caring House in Durham near the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University Hospital. Caring House is an institute that provides housing to patients and their families, and Clarissa and her family stayed there many nights while traveling to Duke for treatments.
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