May-June 2020

Love & tragedy

For Jeffanie Rantung-Kramar, what was supposed to be a honeymoon in paradise turned into unimaginable heartbreak

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Jeffanie and Stephen at their rehearsal dinner in Rockville. Courtesy photo

More than a year and a half after Stephen’s death, Jeffanie says she’s in a good place, all things considered. She doesn’t cry on her drive to work and back anymore, at least not every day. She was promoted twice last year at Freddie Mac, the McLean, Virginia-based mortgage company where she’s an information technology analyst, and has been seeing an on-site therapist at the suggestion of her managers to help her cope with her grief. She’s also won a companywide Shark Tank-style competition that invited employees to come up with a plan for how to increase staff engagement and improve the overall experience at work. Her team’s winning idea: creating a program that allows employees to break out of their silos, experience a day in the life of another team, and see the operation through a different lens.

Perhaps subconsciously, she says, the initiative was inspired by Stephen’s gift for empathizing with different points of view, or maybe her own reframing of the tragedy. Instead of second-guessing her decision to let him hike alone, “I now realize we were both showing so much love for one another in that moment,” says Jeffanie, 28, who lives in North Potomac. “That conversation was about how much we each wanted the other person to be happy.”

Ken Weiner, a longtime mentor to Jeffanie, asked a lot of questions when she initially told him about Stephen months earlier. He’d known Jeffanie since 2011, when she enrolled in Future Link, a Rockville-based nonprofit he co-founded that provides academic and career support to low-income and first-generation college students. He started tutoring her in calculus during her last semester at Montgomery College, and pretty soon she was a “surrogate daughter,” Weiner says.

“I’ve never been involved with a young person as ambitious, as organized, as gritty as Jeffanie,” says Weiner, a retired math professor who taught at Montgomery College for 37 years. He was especially impressed by how she cultivates relationships. “In well-to-do families, where you’re raised by professionals, you learn those skills by osmosis. But Jeffanie is not coming from that environment. She’s just a natural at it.”

Against that backdrop, Weiner wondered how her corporate ambitions would mesh with Stephen’s desire to travel as a missionary. “On paper, they were a mismatch,” Weiner says. “I took her out to dinner and we talked it through. At one point, she leaned over, looked me straight in the eye and said: ‘I’ve never been more sure about anything in my life.’ ”