2021 was a year of constant, unrelenting change for me. My best friend, my mentor, my knight in shining armor, the man I was lucky enough to call my father, passed away holding my hand. Less than a month later, I left behind everything familiar in pursuit of my education and to keep my promise to my dad to always chase my dreams. Facing the hardest loss I have ever and may ever experience, I packed up everything I own in two suitcases, said goodbye to my family and friends, and found myself in western Massachusetts blinded by a combination of culture shock and crippling loss.
The newness was enough to keep the grief at bay for a little over a month. I had sufficient momentum to kick myself out of the comfort and safety of my bed each morning. I went to class on time, made lots of friends, and immersed myself in the campus culture as much as I possibly could. Anytime I experienced an emotion of longing or sadness, I pushed it down until it was no longer recognizable. It worked for a while, but it eventually caught up to me, and soon I had suppressed so much I could feel nothing at all.
I was filled with an anguishing rage, and like a can of pressurized air, was waiting for a lit match to make me explode. I began missing assignment deadlines and I couldn’t pay attention to the simplest conversation, much less to an entire class. No clubs or organizations interested me. I would sit with an essay prompt for hours without a single idea on how to respond to it. When I felt the parts of myself I had always known to be true slipping away — my outgoing personality, my willingness to try new things, my ability to make new connections, my desire to keep myself challenged — I knew it was time to seek help.
As a southerner born and raised, I may always have some internalized “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. Admitting I needed help felt like admitting defeat. However, as soon as I got connected to the wonderful people in counseling services, I was reminded there was hope. I began attending weekly sessions to allow my emotions to move through my body again, but I gained so much more than just that. Over my sessions, I have learned to be kinder to myself in this highly vulnerable time.
One thing that shocked me was my decline in academic performance. I have always been a great student, able to produce impressive work in even the most trivial situations. However, this was one challenge I could not overcome by overworking on my own. I learned that if I were to be performing at my absolute best, it would be highly concerning to most medical professionals because it could mean I was a ticking time bomb below the surface. With lots of hard work to adjust my mindset, I have come to understand that last semester’s nightmares are this semester’s groundbreaking achievements. Making a 79 on an essay has become grounds for celebration as it shows I could at least get my thoughts down onto paper. It may not be the type of grade I have always been comfortable with receiving, but part of grieving is adapting to a new normal.
Above all, coping with serious loss in college has meant learning how to ask for and accept help. Without counseling services, assistance from the dean, and understanding from my professors and club leaders I would not have made it this far. Adjusting to my new normal without my father in my physical world to guide me throughout life has proven to be the most difficult obstacle I have ever had to overcome, but asking for help and being kind to myself has propelled me through.
Every day is a different battle. Healing is not a linear process and cannot be treated as such. If you or someone you know is struggling with grief or another life altering trauma, please see the resources below and do not be afraid to ask for help.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP): www.afsp.org information for survivors and a 24/7 National Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Coalition to Support Grieving Students: Support, articles and resources to help students, educators and parents support grieving students
College Students and Grief : Heal Grief and AMF (Actively Moving Forward): Supporting Grieving College Students
The Compassionate Friends: (TCF) This is the largest self help organization in the world for bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents. They provide more than 650 local chapters in the United States and Canada, with national and regional conferences. TCF offers national and local newsletters, books and tapes and other related bereavement resources. www.compassionatefriends.org
Hospice Net: helps teens with grief due to life threatening illnesses www.hospicenet.org
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