My First Semester of Grief at College. Part 1: Friends
Part 1 of a guide to navigating early grief in college, written by a recently bereaved college student.
This is part one of a four-part series on grief in college. I focus on parental death, but I hope my story can give insight to young people experiencing all types of loss and those who hope to understand and support them. Read the series introduction here.
Two weeks after my mom died unexpectedly at the start of my sophomore year of college, I found myself travelling back to campus. With my family 350+ miles away, I felt alone and I needed my friends more than ever.
As a result, those first few weeks tested, strained, and strengthened my friendships in unpredictable ways.
Here’s what I learned about friends, relationships, and myself.
1. Catastrophic grief is a friendship trial by fire.
Forming meaningful friendships is hard work.
After a year of sharing a campus and a university with my classmates, I realized that I still don’t know these people all that well.
Vulnerability and diving beneath the superficial in a friendship require trust, and trust takes time. I only really began to form deep, trusting relationships in the second half of my first year. Which meant that by the time I returned to campus, I’d only really known even my closest friends for about six months.
New friendships can be especially volatile in the face of stress. As I carried my grief into my relationships, I realized that there was a lot I didn’t know about my friends.
A few weeks after my return to campus, my best friend and I began a series of conversations to reshape our relationship. We both made mutually painful mistakes in the past, and we wanted to change and become closer in a new way. Or at least that was what I wanted.
She told me that she felt there was no room for her in my life because of the role I let my mother play, and that taking my time with my grief was self-torture that she couldn’t stand to watch.
I have to muster every ounce of grace in me to accept what she said as valid and legitimate. But I will always want the best for her, so I try to respect her boundaries even when I really need her here.
It’s not easy.
I would hope that everyone going through loss or pain has friends to surround them, but they may not. Your friends may not be willing or able to support you right now.
I had never considered that possibility.
I tried to restructure my life using my friends as a foundation, and that fell through when I discovered our divergent visions for our relationships.
So what do you do when you need support and friendship and no one is offering? I had to learn to ask for it. It’s hard. It’s risky. It’s terrifying. It’s a trust fall. Sometimes people catch you, and sometimes they don’t. (And the reasons they do either are so much more complex than just how much they care.)
I rebuilt my support system slowly. I knew I felt less alone when I was studying quietly with someone, so I started asking people to study with me. If you can ask for the support you need in the form of concrete, simple tasks, people will gladly help out.
So much easier said than done, I know.
2. Your friends may have different ways of showing they care.
A lot of days, I felt like my friends didn’t care about me, and I’m sure the reverse happened too. This prompted me to start thinking more about how I both give and receive care.
If you haven’t heard of “love languages,” check out this article by Danielle Bernock which sums them up. In short, everyone has a different way of expressing their care for the people they love and receiving that care. Just because you think you’re showing someone how much you care doesn’t mean that they are receiving the same message.
Everyone cares differently. Which means that sometimes we have to be really explicit with what we need. We have to teach our friends how to care for us. And that takes time. Friendship is a process.
3. Grief changes your social needs.
Before my mom died, I mostly kept to myself. I did my homework alone, resented my roommate for encroaching on my personal space, and, some days, wished everyone around me would disappear.
When I first returned to campus, small talk became hellish torture (even more than usual). I couldn’t stand to hear people talking about their internships or vacations or classes or assignments.
How can they care about such small things, I thought, when my mom is dead? What does any of this matter when my mom is dead?
So, at first, I avoided any and all social contact.
But as the semester went on, I found myself craving connection. I felt alone and I wanted people to be around me. I missed the warmth of feeling loved and cared for, and I wanted people to remind me that they cared.
Being aware of these changes in myself became key to surviving social situations and teaching my friends what I needed.
4. People, especially your peers, may be afraid of your pain.
Grief is terrifying. No one really knows what to do in the face of pain, especially not a group of teenagers and college students with a debatable connection to “the real world.” My friends often avoided the subject, cut off conversations, or froze up when I answered honestly about how I was doing. Some told me they didn’t feel equipped or qualified to support me when I asked them to listen to my story.
You can’t make people less afraid of your pain. Grief forces people to re-evaluate their own lives and mortality, confront the reality of their loved ones’ eventual deaths, and face the uncertainty, unfairness, and brokenness that come along with this life.
I can’t blame them for being afraid of it.
I’m known for using dark humor to soften the edges. Some days, I can talk about the pain-filled and traumatic experiences of my mom’s death and the aftermath by laughing at how absolutely absurd it all is.
But some days I don’t feel like joking. I’ve also often turned to invalidating my own experiences to make them seem less painful, ending every sentence with “but I’m OK” or “but I guess that’s just part of the process.” That makes the conversation easier, but in the end it helps neither the speaker nor the listener.
Vulnerable, unabashed honesty and openness are the best ways to acclimate people to the reality of pain and darkness in our world. By showing people our brokenness and our struggles alongside the rest of our lives, we help them see how darkness and light coexist.
By showing people the days we can’t make ourselves get out of bed alongside all the days that we can, we show them how it is possible to live life without fear of the pain.
If you’re lucky enough to connect with someone who is not afraid of your grief, seek them out. But be sure to check in with them often and openly about supporting you. I always try to make sure the people supporting me have socially acceptable ways to say “I’m sorry, I really can’t be there right now,” and I try to accept that when they tell me. If there’s one thing grief taught me, it’s that pain is often invisible and everyone has a complicated, messy life behind what you see. Sometimes the people who understand the most are the ones also going through difficult times.
5. There will be days when (you feel like) all your friends are too busy for you.
Some days, my friends weren’t there when I needed them.
Lying on the floor texting everyone who’s ever seen me cry and getting nothing back. Smack in the middle of finals, going through all my old photos and wishing someone was there to give me a hug, but everyone had either left campus or was studying. 3pm on a Monday needing someone to sit with me, but everyone had class or meetings.
Everyone has a life that feels supremely important to them, and that was so hard to accept when mine had come to a full stop.
So, as is my habit, I tried to make a plan.
As I was mapping out my support system, I considered what made each person unique logistically. I knew I had one friend who didn’t have class on Tuesdays, one who was always up late at night, and another who was awake early in the morning. So I knew who might be around at different times.
It didn’t always work. My go-to sober Friday night friend had off-campus plans some weeks. The one who gives the best hugs got a boyfriend I didn’t get along with.
You can’t make everyone be there for you when you need them. Grief is a solitary journey. You may feel abandoned and alone, but you will learn with time to make peace with those feelings. You will learn the difficult art of letting your friends care for you as they can.
6. 99% of your friends will not understand.
Most young adults haven’t experienced a world-shattering death. They have no idea what it feels like. Despite hours of research on grief and preparing myself for my mom’s death, I was one of those people who had no idea until just a few months ago. I had no idea it would be this hard.
And so, having been a member of that majority until not long ago, I can assert with confidence that almost no one my age understands what I’m going through.
And they don’t have to. It’s OK if they just don’t get it.
But it’s not OK when they think they understand but they don’t. It’s not OK when they attach a certain set of presumptions to my loss, and it’s especially not OK when these presumptions come from a lack of experience coated in naivete that makes them believe they know what they’re doing.
Many college students and young adults just don’t have enough life experience to know what real brokenness is like. Many of them have experienced non-devastating loss, which, while painful and awful and messy, was not earth-shattering, cannot-function, might-skip-a-semester, years-long, nothing-will-ever-be-OK-again kind of catastrophic. When friends projected the lessons they learned from that experience onto mine, it felt like they were trivializing or ignoring my pain.
What do you do when your friends fundamentally don’t understand the scale, depth, or weight of your experience? You can always try to teach them.
But sometimes I just needed someone more capable of relating. I found that support in the form of my professors and other adult mentors on campus. Watch out for part 2 of this series for more on professors, academics, mentors, and making school schedules work for you.
If you are currently trying to support a loved one who is grieving, remember this: you don’t have to know what you’re doing. Really.
There are all kinds of lists of what to say and what not to say, but in the end what is most valuable is your empathy and your humanity. You might say something unhelpful. Heck, I’m sure that despite my best intentions I say unhelpful things to grieving people on a regular basis. But the important thing is I’m trying to learn.
If you aren’t sure what to say to someone who is grieving, give it your best shot, and then be open when we let you know what is helpful or hurtful. Grieving people are human too, and many of us understand wanting to help but not knowing how. We will teach you, if you listen.