On missing dad and grieving in college

Of course my dad was always there for everything I did
No matter where
What time of day
No matter what I did..
-Of Course, poem #11

Seven years, eight months and 20 days after my dad died, I found myself moving into my dorm at UNC-Chapel Hill, ready to begin my first year.

As my mom and her long-time boyfriend of six years helped me loft my bed, a small thought crept into my mind.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. He’s supposed to be here. My dad is supposed to be here keeping my mom calm and using the latest piece of technology (a Droid or iPhone, no doubt) to check off our day’s accomplishments on his slightly obsessive packing and to-do lists. 

Fast-forward one month to family weekend. Once again, I had what I’ll refer to as a this-isn’t-how-it’s-supposed-to-be thought. I was sure that going into our Homecoming Game, he would have known every imaginable statistic about each and every player on Carolina’s football team.

Fast-forward another month. October 17th marked what would have been my dad’s 52nd birthday, and it was my first time experiencing a “Dad day” without my family. To say it hit me harder than the past few years’ worth of birthdays combined would be an understatement.

Skip forward another month and some change to the eight year anniversary of his death. My suitemates weren’t exactly sure what to do when they found me curled up in my room that evening looking at pictures; listening to my dad-songs playlist, surrounded by a box’s worth of wadded up tissues.

Eight years later and still having days when I’m this upset and in hysterics? Yup.

I am a staunch believer that grief is not something that ever goes away.Yes it changes, and yes it becomes less consuming. But does it ever go away? Definitely not, and college reaffirmed this for me. Being in a new environment without my family and the support of friends from home was initially isolating. My first semester was especially difficult.

I do not want to downplay how amazingly supportive the people in my life are. However, there are some interesting things about grieving an “old loss” within the college bubble.

First, there’s the simple and unfortunate fact that time is working against me. For some reason, society has placed an arbitrary expiration date on grief. I began to notice the decline in sympathy and understanding six to 12 months following my dad’s death; and as time passed further, the expectation that I’d “get over it” increased as well. Because of this, it comes as no surprise when my college peers are thrown off when I have bad days – my loss was 11 years ago after all. See, there’s a bit of a mismatch in expectations. Those who have never experienced an immediate loss – through no fault of their own – often buy into the you-get-over-it myth. Perhaps it’s because they have hope that if someone they loved were to die, they’d only face that unimaginable pain for a short amount of time before it magically disappeared. It’s harder to confront and accept the reality that they’d never reach a point where bad days ceased to be a part of their horizon. So, when you’re surrounded by people who can’t understand that grief comes in waves – that years later, for some inexplicable reason, you may be reduced to tears just from seeing a child carried on their father’s shoulders – you can start to feel like there’s something wrong with you, as if you are grieving the “wrong way.”

Second, the fast-paced environment that is college isn’t particularly conducive to grieving. Between classes; deadlines; extracurricular activities; lunch, dinner and coffee dates; studying; parties; events; and trying to squeeze in some sleep, there isn’t much wiggle room for adding reflection, meltdowns or bad days to your schedule. And, when you factor in the expectation that you should always be on the go or ready to have a good time (these are supposed to be ‘the best days of your life,’ right??), grief can exacerbate feelings of isolation.

And finally, there are the times when I’m sharing a memory and realize the person with whom I’m speaking just isn’t getting it. They never knew my dad, so they’re having a hard time picturing this almost-mythical figure I’m gushing about. For them, he’s simply a collection of fragmented stories – memories of a little girl. And how can I even come close to adequately describing him? There are days when it absolutely crushes me to remember the truth: I can’t. Because, a person is so much more than their occupation; their likes and dislikes; or their talents. It’s about the moments you share with them. How they could draw people in. How their presence could fill a room. The unconditional love. The pride. The laughs. The corny jokes. The embraces. It’s all of the intangible little things you can’t put your finger on. It’s the life that made that person special. It’s how having that person in your life made you feel. The majority of the people now in my life never knew him – a truth only heightened within the college bubble. I wish they could have. Maybe then, it would be easier for them to grasp what I’m missing.

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