Starting the school year after losing a loved one

Illustration of a girl looking sadly out her window at the city lights, while her cat paws at her.
Armaan Mumtaz/Staff

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Content warning: death

During more ordinary times, the experience of dealing with death and loss feels more distant to many of us. However, in light of the recent catastrophic events we have faced as a global community — whether it’s the pandemic or increasingly frequent natural disasters — more of us have had to grapple with losing the people in our lives that we care about most. Against the backdrop of our tentative yet excited return to campus, I am also silently coping with the loss of a loved one. 

For me, coming back to campus felt odd. I felt glad that I had the opportunity to sit in lecture halls and see people face-to-face again in my last year of undergrad, yet I also held guilt for not being able to share stories of this surreal reality to the one person who would’ve been most excited to hear of them. 

My grandfather was the person who most looked forward to my graduation day. Ever since I started schooling, he was the one who took me to my classes, and when he no longer could, he walked me out to my car every day before I drove off to school. I always knew that the first person I would gleefully tell that I finished my final course would have been him. But just before I finished my junior year in the midst of online courses, he passed away. 

Thankfully, I had summer break to mentally prepare myself for this school year — the first one without him. At least, I told myself that I was going through what thousands of other people were probably also going through at the same moment, hoping that my loss would be a little easier to cope with if I thought about it that way. But as I stepped onto campus on the first day of classes and lay awake at night reflecting over the reality that we’re all back in person, I felt a tinge of longing for losing one of my greatest supporters who would never hear about it. The person I so desperately wanted to show my diploma to had left just before I hit that milestone. A wave of guilt built up in me and I silently blamed myself for not completing my degree fast enough and leaving my grieving family behind.

To overcome this demoralizing pit of grief I had dug myself in, I had to recognize the elephant in the room — my future without him. I had to recognize this loss and put myself in a new mindsight that acknowledged the reality of death. I don’t need to pretend as if things are normal and that we aren’t living in times of unrest. I’m moving forward in my last year as an undergraduate in my grandfather’s legacy. There is no way to emotionally detach ourselves from someone who has significantly impacted our lives. But I think that if I continue on with my life, I’ll also be continuing the story of my grandfather. 

While things still seem unfamiliar now, make time to stay connected with those who care for you. Our daily lives carry on the memories of those closest to us. Grief is only eased with time but never truly gone. Give yourself time to grieve, to strengthen your mental and emotional health so you can tackle the new uncertainties of in-person learning. Then stand up again, this time with the teachings and legacy of those we’ve lost and with the support of those we still have. 

Contact Emily Lui at [email protected].