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Transition and Tragedy

How does a freshman cope with the sudden death of a parent?

By Zachary Williams

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July 11, 2013

Freshman year in college is a time of celebration for most. Freed from the babysitting and busy-working grind of high school as well as from the direct supervision of family members, most freshmen revel in their newfound liberty. It is a profoundly strange time for anybody to be despondent or even in mourning. Mournful, however, is precisely the mood I found myself in after the sudden death of my mother in the fall.

My first year at UNC-Chapel Hill was off to a rocky start even before my mother died. Burdened with a challenging roommate, adjusting to the different academic pace and style of college, and struggling to involve myself in meaningful clubs or extracurriculars, I had arguably been floundering since day one. And then came Fall Break. My outwardly healthy mother had driven to Chapel Hill from my home in Virginia, along with my grandmother who wanted to see the campus for the first time. She was going to bring me home for the long weekend but fell violently ill after arriving at the university. I called 911 and accompanied her to UNC’s emergency room. The last time I talked to her, she was conscious and lucid although hooked up to IVs and under close supervision.

Reassured that my mother was going to be fine and needing to finish a paper due the night before Fall Break, I decided to head back to my dorm and write that paper to preclude the risk of an unsympathetic professor. By the time I returned to the hospital later that evening, I learned that her heart and lungs had failed as a result of a rare adrenal gland tumor (pheochromocytoma) and that she was undergoing massive surgery. She died five days later, having never emerged from a coma. I had never given her a proper goodbye.

Emotionally wrecked, I trudged onward with my schoolwork. Many people expressed surprise that I did not choose to take any time off from school. I recommend, however, for anyone in a state of grief, to stay busy somehow. It is imperative that you do not single-mindedly stew in your misery for every waking hour.

I found that the most effective way to distract myself was to keep myself busy although not overly so. The faculty and administration whom I dealt with were understanding; I was able to drop a class even though the deadline for doing so had long passed and my professors offered me flexibility on assignment due dates. Being away from home probably lessened the impact of my mother’s death somewhat; having lived away from my family for two months already, I could subconsciously convince myself that nothing was different because I was at college where her absence was expected instead of strange. My father and sister seemed to take her loss even harder than I did, though whether it is because they felt less of a need to internalize their emotions or because they genuinely suffered more, I will never know.

I did manage acceptable grades; my GPA sits at slightly under 3.8 after one year. Socially, however, my response was less healthy. My response to grief and complicated emotions was to isolate myself. Grappling with a bizarre blend of depression, guilt, and existential confusion, I decided that the easiest thing to do was to keep to myself. A cantankerous introvert even under the best of circumstances, I could not bear to listen to my peers whine about the most trivial of “struggles” while I contemplated the loss of my closest family member.

Isolating yourself is the absolute worst thing you can do to yourself in college. Surrounded by hundreds or more likely thousands of young adults your own age, you squander almost everything that makes college worthwhile. You need to go out of your way to join clubs, find like-minded people, and have fun. You will also fare better academically if you take the initiative to form study groups. Study groups are great because they address the blind spots in your knowledge and engage you with the material in a way that staring at your notebook or computer screen simply can’t. If you want to get an education on your own, you will be able to do so with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) soon enough! It is the people, not the material, that differentiates college from other kinds of learning, so spend as much time socializing as you can. 

I clearly regret isolating myself, but how would I have gone about being more social? Most importantly, I would have sought a support group of my peers. I very recently learned of an organization called National Students of AMF (http://www.studentsofamf.org/) that describes itself as a group for “college students supporting college students grieving the illness or death of a loved one.” The organization, which has a chapter at UNC and many other universities, also offers assistance to students who want to start a chapter at a college that doesn’t yet have one.

Although I have not yet attended such a meeting, in hindsight, joining a support group is probably the best thing I could have done for myself. It would have made a difference to feel that somebody could relate to me. I also would have benefited from the catharsis of fully discussing my emotions; by having a group of people whom I could vent to, I could have gotten some of the malaise out of my system and been less negative in my everyday social interactions. The benefits of peer therapy would have likely snowballed, improving many aspects of my life. Although most universities have counseling services available, I personally believe that I would have benefitted more from peer interaction to get the sense that I was not all alone with my difficulties. My friends were sympathetic when I talked with them about my problem but I felt guilty for confiding too much and I knew that they could not fully relate.

If you are looking for a happy ending to my story, you will be disappointed. As you may have noted, I am less than a year removed from the tragedy. I will return to campus in August with a more upbeat and proactive attitude, though I will still need to undo the damage of a lost freshman year. Having lost a parent at a time of profound change and surrounded by 30,000 happy strangers, I felt almost as alone as a person can last year.

I want anybody who reads this to know that you do not have to feel alone; you just need to find the people who can relate to your grief. There may very well be no solution to a situation of unexpected tragedy. By keeping busy and finding peer support, however, you will make the healthiest transition possible under the circumstances.

(Editor's note: The Pope Center asks its interns to share with our readers lessons they learned in college. Thus, this article is part of an occasional series called "If I Knew Then What I Know Now.")

 


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