What It’s Like Experiencing Grief in College

Nowhere but in college are you simultaneously liberated and limited as you navigate the strange in-between that is not quite yet adulthood. In college you’re free to set your own schedule, explore your passions, and advocate for everything from social change to better dining hall food. You’re set free in a quasi-reality, only to be reeled back in by professors whose job it is to remind you that you’re not prepared to enter the real world. And in this state of limbo it’s easy to change perceptions of home when your roommate replaces your siblings, and your apartment overtakes your two-story home with the big back yard. It’s easy to feel isolated and removed from family in this high-pressure, alcohol-infused, alternative reality that is university life, and so hard to deal with familial loss when you’ve become so comfortable living virtually on your own.

Such was the case when my grandmother passed away. I was not two weeks into the spring semester, still adjusting to university life after a semester abroad and eager to embrace my classes and campus involvements with a newfound rigor. I’d only been home for 10 days, but was ready to see my old friends and return to the comfortable regularity of school. Knowing my grandmother’s condition had been worsening for the past few months, I’d almost left my concerns with my family. With them I was a daughter, sister, granddaughter; at school my identity was different. Here I was simply a student, and family responsibilities felt far outside of my collegiate bubble.

The last couple weeks of my grandmother’s life, she remained a constant presence in mine through frequent texts and phone calls from my parents and siblings—heartbreaking windows into family life that would interrupt my academic routine for a few minutes before I hung up the phone, fixed my makeup, and returned to class, pretending to be fascinated by Larry McMurtry’s stories of the wild west and that my existence depended on my knowledge of French novels and the use of the imperfect verb tense. I refused to allow my personal life—the life I left at home with my yellow lab, childhood bed, and my mom’s homemade chili—to affect my role as a student.

My ceaseless commitment to my studies stemmed both from my identity as a perpetual rule-follower and my fear of abnormality. While I dreaded falling below the high academic standards I’d set for myself, part of me believed that sustaining my routines in and out of the classroom at college was enough to sustain my family’s normalness so many miles away. I was walking on eggshells, as if the slightest deviance from the college norm would upset the balance of family life hundreds of miles away.

Unsurprisingly, my adherence to school assignments and extracurricular activities couldn’t sustain family normalness. My nights were reduced to little more than six hours as I relentlessly studied, volunteered, and began a new job, but the phone calls from my parents became no more positive. It was after a week of this manic productivity that I finally took a moment to debrief by talking to my roommate about typical college concerns: sorority date parties, midterm schedules, and where we’d get dinner the following Friday—the types of conversations that often instilled in me a sense of guilt for interrupting an otherwise productive evening. I soon reached for my phone to check the time and saw a missed call from my dad with a text below: “Please call me back.”

I didn’t have to dial to know what he called to tell me, but did so anyway and sobbed into the receiver as my roommate climbed onto my bed and put an arm around me. In that moment I was more confused than ever about who I should be—as I cried to my dad from beneath my roommate’s arm, surrounded by unfinished readings and a planner near to bursting with assignments and obligations, I wondered how on earth I could face almost-adulthood when I’d never felt closer to being a child.

Upon finishing the conversation with a sniffly “Love you too,” I set down my phone and promptly picked up my reading. I had 60 pages to cover before class the next morning and reached for a pen to mark a reminder on the back of my hand. It was only Monday and I had a whole week of work ahead. While the precious balance of family life had been upset, I refused to slow down, believing that as long as I wasn’t home comforting family I had to uphold my academic responsibilities. The same professor who insisted we write our reading responses in precisely 500 words of Times New Roman font, couldn’t possibly excuse my absence or lack of participation the following morning.

My insistence on resuming my assignments (despite my roommate’s protests) wasn’t an act of irreverence, but a coping mechanism. How could I justify taking “personal time” when I had been blessed with good health and the opportunity to excel in university courses? How could evading my responsibilities be anything other than selfish? How could refusing the role of a college student while remaining surrounded by the people, places, and events that defined university life bring me comfort? Here I was an adult—a young professional—and as such I couldn’t abandon my commitments in the face of homesickness.

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When nearly an hour had passed and I had little more than a page of finished reading to show for it, I decided to take my roommate’s advice. I realized I couldn’t fulfill my academic duties when thoughts of home pervaded my every thought. I emailed my professor to explain why I’d be absent from class the following morning, cleared my readings and planner from my bed, picked up my journal, and began writing.

I spent the remainder of that evening and much of the following morning working through the questions, confusion, and emotion that clouded my brain. I knew I had to reconcile my school and home identities, but like deciding what outfit to wear for an interview, nothing I conjured up seemed to fit right. I couldn’t let so much of my personal life bleed into this college bubble; and yet, I couldn’t deny that the events back home were consuming my attention and shaking the secure foundation I’d built over two and a half years as a university student. The university world kept turning and I was at a standstill, wondering how to give my family the attention they deserved without falling behind in school and how to confess to feeling pain the wake of tragedy without appearing to make excuses.

Perhaps it was sheer exhaustion, perhaps enlightenment, but at the end of several days of fruitless contemplation and only slightly increased productivity I decided that there was no answer to the conflicting emotions I’d been experiencing. Grief isn’t something dealt with as quickly as homework assignments; you can’t read it, underline key phrases, mutter “hmmm” under your breath as you identify an overarching theme or an expression, and close it up in a folder to be forgotten about until exam time. Grief is an unpredictable ebb and flow that can linger for weeks, months, even years under your skin. So no matter where you are or what you are doing, you have to accept it because grief is normal.
Some days you might be able to ignore it; some days you’ll forget it’s there. But some days it will creep up on you, tap you on the shoulder and make reading that last chapter impossible. It’s hard, but trust me. Take care of yourself on those days.

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