Tears fell before a memorial service even began.
A mother stood outside of the Rion Ballroom with shaking shoulders. At last, Kamula McKnight-Butler straightened and entered the room to celebrate the life of her daughter.
More than 150 people gathered in the Reitz Union Wednesday to honor Denise Griffiths, a 21-year-old UF senior who died from brain and spinal injuries on Jan. 29, almost two days after she was struck by a vehicle. Friends and family reflected on Griffiths’ life, and she was awarded a posthumous bachelor’s degree in English.
McKnight-Butler said she was glad the university commemorated her daughter and said she’s received love from faculty and organizations.
“We are encased in love,” she said.
Phillip Griffiths, Griffiths’ father, was among those who spoke at the memorial.
He evoked the image of a girl whose nose was always in a book. Her fondest souvenir was a library card from Europe, he said. Griffiths was a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, cousin and a grand wizard of the Gryffindor house.
Behind him, a slideshow was shone, and with each rotation, a new photo of Griffiths grinning and posing with friends. His speech was punctuated with the sounds of sniffles and occasional laughter from the crowd.
“Her life itself was the mixtape she promised us. Denise, it was lit ... Dezus has dropped the mic, but she will always be in the building,” her father said.
After the service, he said in an interview that eight of his daughter’s organs were donated.
“Even though she’s not here physically, she’ll continue to bless someone else,” he said. “And the families will continue to enjoy their loved ones for longer than we did.”
Gloria McGonigle, Griffiths’ grandmother, watched her four children serve more than 100 years collectively in the military, Griffiths’ aunt Theresa Abraham said. The family never expected her granddaughter to be the one who didn’t come home.
“She’s the first person in our family we lost,” said A.J. Aiyetoro, Griffiths’ uncle.
Abraham said her niece was carrying on the family’s legacy.
“She was a soldier, a leader and a servant to many, and she will definitely be missed,” she said.
Griffiths’ best friend Jasmine Rivera, a 21-year-old UF political science and women’s studies senior, also spoke. The heartbreak she feels is intense, but so is the love that Griffiths left her, she said.
Most people think soul mates are romantic, she said, but they’re not. The bond she said she shared with Griffiths proved that.
Members of SISTUHS Inc., Gatorship, the Jamaican American Student Association and the Black Student Union — all groups that Griffiths belonged to — also spoke. Their tributes made clear that Griffiths’ impact was far-reaching and permanent.
As the service drew to an end, the slideshow remained on the same image that adorned many attendees’ shirts. In it, a winged Griffiths is glowing. The words “Rest in Power” surround her.
Aliyah Walters, a 23-year-old UF alumna, was Griffiths’ mentor. Griffiths was more than just a mentee, she said. She was like a younger sister.
“It was nice having someone else to love on,” Walters said.
She said she was grateful for all the people who showed up to Griffiths’ memorial service.
“She had a family in all of us,” Walters said. “I wasn’t the only one who got to experience her good in this world.”