My father died over winter break. Though he had been ill for many years, returning to my life as a student was more difficult than I ever imagined. I was forced to reprioritize my commitments to maintain focus on getting through each day -- a difficult task for a chronic workaholic.
Grief is not an emotion I expected to experience in college. I struggled to discuss my feelings with classmates who had never considered their parents' mortality. A friend of mine suggested that I join a bereavement group; oddly enough, his grandfather met a new love interest at a widow support meeting in New York. There was just one small problem -- there were no public or student loss groups within 100 miles of my rural university. I knew that I could not be the only student in this situation (even though it felt like it), so I reached out to my college counseling office. They were happy to accommodate my request, and a handful of students showed up to the first meeting four months ago.
Each week I talk, cry and laugh with people that were strangers until the bereavement group brought us together. While a college therapist sometimes moderates our discussion, most of our time is spent sharing our experiences and offering advice on upcoming challenges. Together we started a list of guidance (below) for others experiencing and witnessing grief in college.
Things I wish someone had told me sooner:
- It gets easier, but not in even increments. Emotions go up and down; sometimes the worst part is months after the actual death. And you won't see these moments coming.
- The smallest (and strangest) things can remind you of your loved one. Just this morning, my father's favorite song, "You Can Call Me Al" by Paul Simon, came on the radio and required a quick re-application of mascara before class.
- You are allowed to keep thinking about the person you lost."Moving on" doesn't mean forgetting all of the memories you shared. It's about managing your thoughts so your life can move forward.
- A strange upside to experiencing something truly terrible is that you have a "Get-out-of-BS" card. If you are not interested in dealing with someone's relationship drama, passive-aggressive Facebook posts or straight-out bad behavior, you are allowed to call him or her on it... and they won't reprimand you for doing so. Don't abuse this card, but allow yourself to reduce unnecessary drama in your life.
Advice for others that have lost a loved one in college:
- Even if you've never been to a therapist or support group before, it's a valuable experience -- especially if you're worried about overwhelming your friends.
- Don't beat yourself up if you had a bad hour/day/week. You can start fresh tomorrow.
- Email some ideas of what you need (a shoulder to cry on, someone to make sure you finished your homework, etc.) to your closest friends. It will help them feel less awkward around you. Feel free to use these tips.
- Don't burn bridges. Dumping people or projects is tempting, but try holding off for a couple months in case you change your mind. Shortly after my dad died I thought about taking a semester off. I stuck with school and now my degree is still on track.
- The pressure is huge to "get over it" and return to normal, but friends don't realize that your version of normal doesn't exist anymore. And what is normal anyway? It's however you need to function until you feel good again.
- Living away from home (sometimes for the first time) makes it hard to spend time and grieve with other family members. Reach out as much as you need to -- even a brief text message that conveys your love can make a huge difference in their day.
- Share happy memories or silly stories that make you think of the person fondly -- particularly when thinking about the actual death. Creating a digital photo album (and printing out a few favorites) offers a better perspective of your time together. Whether or not you share the album is up to you.
- Start a new hobby -- I learned how to cross-stich. Anything from knitting to jogging can help take your mind off of things.
- Be good to yourself. Sleep plenty and eat well. On the same note: don't beat yourself up for less-than-healthy choices -- I became well-acquainted with two new friends, Ben & Jerry.
- If your schedule seems too overwhelming, talk to your professors. Don't feel bad about dropping unnecessary courses.
Advice for friends of people that have lost loved ones:
- Send a card or something physical that we can keep and look back on (and seeing your support in words means a lot).
- Try your hardest to attend the funeral/wake/spreading of the ashes/sitting shiva, even if you don't have a role to play in the process. Your role is your presence.
- Offer to help out behind-the-scenes. Your willingness to pick up Aunt Gertrude from the airport will not go unnoticed. Neither will your initiative to ask about his or her family and how they're doing a few months later.
- Don't stop inviting us to hang out, even if we decline a few times.
- Instead of asking "What can I do for you," (which is nice) think of something yourself, like "Can we get together on Monday afternoons and go to the gym together for the rest of the semester?"
- Don't ignore the grief. Not saying anything is worse than saying something that might be upsetting. Reassure them that you don't mind talking about who they lost and listening to memories or concerns.
- In the same vein -- if your friend doesn't want to talk, don't force them. They'll come to you when they're ready, and that's when you listen and make them lots of tea.
More advice and comments would be greatly appreciated -- feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.