Learning how to handle grief in college harder than expected

Grieving for my brother was much harder away from home, but getting help and hearing other students with similar experiences helped me to become a more independent person.

By Laura Townsend

[B]y the time I got to college freshman year, I thought I had learned how to handle my grief. It had been three years since a car accident took the life of my adored big brother. For three years, I had been learning how to navigate a world in which he no longer existed. I was in constant pain, but I thought I had my grief under control.

A few months into my freshman year, I suffered a breakdown. Grieving for my brother in college was nothing like it was in high school. For the first time, I was forced to miss my brother entirely by myself. At home, my friends and family were grieving alongside me. I had been leaning on them so heavily that when they were no longer there to hold me up, I collapsed.

College is a difficult transition for everyone. We are forced to adjust to a new way of living while balancing coursework and a social life. In college, we learn who we are separately from those who raised us. Everything around us feels new, and yet our old problems still remain. They linger until we are forced to confront them.

As college stresses continued to build, I suppressed my feelings of grief and homesickness. A breakdown was inevitable.

The beginning of the breakdown occurred in the middle of one of my classes, when the professor played a disturbing video of a car accident. The video triggered memories I had been suppressing for months. I ran out of class crying.

After the incident in the classroom, I could no longer contain my grief. I began having panic attacks on a nearly daily basis. I missed classes and fought with friends.

After a particularly severe panic attack, I decided I needed help; I scheduled an appointment with University Counseling Service. At my first appointment, my therapist (a peppy graduate student) informed me that significant portions of the service’s clientele are grieving students. She hit me with a cliché: “You are not alone,” which I actually really needed to hear.

Grieving in college can feel isolating. At home, there were pictures of my brother on every wall of the house. My parents were always talking about him. Even my friends would recall stories from time to time. At college, nobody knew who he was. New friends did not want to discuss deeply personal matters right away. I did not want to be a burden to them.

What I failed to realize freshman year, however, was that many of my friends were dealing with their own grief at the same time. Many of them were struggling as much as I was.

Grief is an all-consuming feeling that never goes away. As long as my heart is beating, I will mourn the loss of my brother. He is always on my mind. Grieving in college has been an entirely different process than grieving at home. It is never easy, but once I learned to open up and let myself feel sad when I needed to, it became manageable. Learning how to grieve in college was an essential step to learning how to be an independent person.

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