Death affects all of us in a variety of ways, and how we cope in times in tragedy and loss is often influenced by our responsibilities or where we are at in life at the given moment.
Coping with death was especially difficult for me when I served as a Resident Advisor (RA) in a college dormitory during my senior year of undergraduate studies. I already had an emotional summer filled with loss, so I was ready to start the semester anew and make my senior year amazing. I was four and a half weeks into the semester, taking a full load of classes, just beginning my second year as an RA for first year students, and holding two other leadership positions in other organizations on campus.
It was a Saturday night when I received the shocking news of the death of a dormitory resident from the prior year. I had experienced the grief of losing several family members and peers growing up, all from various incidents and illnesses. However, this was different. A type of numbness overcame my body that day that I had not experienced before. This was someone who I interacted with on a daily basis, shared a living-community with, who I was supposed to be a resource for in times of need, and now they were just gone.
As an RA, I had been trained on an infinite number of possible situations, but nothing prepared me for this. I had so many questions with no answers. I had dozens of people reaching out asking how they could be there for me and extending their condolences, but I felt more isolated than ever. It seemed like no one understood what I was truly feeling.
I still had to turn in my class assignments, be a resource for my current residents, provide support for my residents from the previous year, and uphold my obligations to the other organizations I was involved with on campus. I did not want to let anyone down or not fulfill obligations I said I would meet, so I pushed my feelings and grief to the backburner and threw myself into anything and everything else.
I dove so deeply into everything else that eventually, my body completely shut down — I had been ignoring both my physical and mental health so much for weeks, that I ended up being diagnosed with bronchitis, strep throat on two separate occasions, and even ended up in the hospital with pneumonia, all within a two-month period of time. It took me laying on a hospital bed to realize that I have only been making this grieving process worse for myself, and I could no longer ignore the emptiness I had been feeling. I had not cried since the night I received the news nor had I let the emotions I was feeling affect me; but at that moment, I wept. Little did I know that as a flood of tears fell from my eyes, I was beginning the first steps of my healing process.
I began seeking out support from campus resources, attending talk therapy to address the survivors’ guilt and emptiness I felt, opened up to my supervisor with more than just saying “I am doing fine”, was transparent with how I was truly feeling, and started the process of rebuilding myself. This is a process that I am still navigating even years later, but one that has helped me grow as a person.
My personal experience with dealing with grief and coping after death as college student who needed to be everything for everyone else is rather unique, but we all need to learn how to cope with loss. I learned a lot about what steps to take that may be of help to others: