In my 19 1/2 years of life, I have experienced very little loss, and I consider myself extremely lucky in that respect. However, the possibility of death and loss have never strayed far from my mind. As time passes and I watch loved ones grow older, I must reckon with the fact that I will be experiencing their physical and cognitive declines, and maybe even deaths, from hundreds of miles away.
Being away from home often makes the decline of people we love seem much more dramatic than it is. During my freshman year I came home one weekend during Winter Quarter and visited with my perfectly healthy grandparents. When I came back a few weeks later for Spring Break my grandmother had fallen and broken five ribs and fractured her pelvis in two places. In the months following her fall, she was diagnosed with dementia. It was difficult to see someone who has played such a significant role in my life in a state of constant confusion and pain, and it broke my heart to know that she would never fully bounce back to who she once was, as I knew her.
In a study conducted by David E. Balk at Oregon State University, it was determined that between 22 and 30 percent of college students are in the first year of bereavement, with losses encompassing both family and friends. The grieving process can seem truncated while in college, as students have to deal with the rapid succession of work, school and exams piled on top of experiencing a loss. It seems as though students do not have time to properly express their sadness in fear of falling behind in other aspects of their lives.
This process of accelerated grief is not unique to college students. When I was in seventh grade one of my friends died, and while teachers were very understanding and compassionate, there seemed to be a consensus that the world keeps turning. The day of my friend’s memorial service and burial I took a math test while dressed in my funeral clothes. I failed miserably, likely since I was monumentally distracted by the most profound tragedy of my 12-year-old life.
The biggest difference in dealing with loss while living away from home is the sudden isolation in the grieving process. When I was experiencing loss at 12 years old I had a very solid support system of family, friends and community. But now, experiencing a loss or coping with an impending loss seems like a very singular experience. While people are always still willing to lend support and comfort, loss is a fleeting moment in time, a blip in existence and something that affects all of us differently. Comfort and support from people who mean well can also come off offensive or ignorant, despite the best of intentions.
I have not yet suffered a loss of a loved one while in school, but over the course of the past year I have watched all four of my grandparents decline both physically and mentally. The guilt for each set is different; for my grandparents who live more than 2,000 miles away, I am regretful that I cannot physically see them in person and that I have to choose between seeing them and other responsibilities like school or work during the summer.
While we are stuck to grieve alone, we also feel guilt that we are unable to be present and offer support to others, leaving us in a limbo of needing support but being unable to offer that support to others.
With my grandparents living in California, the guilt takes a different form. Watching my grandfather’s cognitive decline has been especially heart-wrenching for me. In addition to many physical ailments, his mental cognition has taken a sharp dive in the past month, and a recent bout of pneumonia has left him physically unable to care for himself and in a constant state of hallucination and confusion. It has been a struggle to watch a man whom I consider my hero become a shadow of himself. I feel fortunate enough to visit them with more frequency, but at the same time I feel as though I am squandering our fleeting time. I am also guilt-ridden with the fact that I am unable to provide support to my mother who does a great deal of caregiving, and that I am able to retreat to I.V. while everyone else is stuck with the gravity of the situation.
Absence during a loss in college is multi-faceted. While we are stuck to grieve alone, we also feel guilt that we are unable to be present and offer support to others, leaving us in a limbo of needing support but being unable to offer that support to others. One of my own fears is the possibility that an inability to be with my loved ones as they slip away is construed as selfishness. I am worried that should anything happen when I study abroad I won’t be able to make the 5,000-plus mile trek home in time.
Grieving in the digital age is a novel aspect of loss that students today are navigating for the first time. It seems fairly common to see commemorative posts on Instagram and Facebook pictures accompanied by paragraphs of memories and eulogies for family, friends and even pets may be a cathartic experience for some, but may seem too personal for others. Posting on social media seems to desentize loss and gives us an unrealistic idea of the “appropriate” length of the grieving process. If we see a person post a picture for their recently departed grandmother immediately followed by their spring break trip to Cabo, we may feel pressured to bottle up our grief and ignore our own feelings when faced with a loss of our own.
The age-old saying that everyone grieves in their own way is true. We all handle loss differently, be it by posting about it on Instagram or by shutting down emotionally. That being said, college is a particularly sensitive time to experience loss, especially a sudden one. It is okay to feel guilty, and it is also okay to reach out for support, because it is likely that someone you know is going through something similar.
Hannah Jackson hopes that students feel able to express their grief while living away from home.