Grieving  During Your “Best Years,” by Mary Williams

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These are the best days of your life. These are the days when college students are out drinking with friends or dressing up for the themed frat party right off campus.  Friendships are developing over drinks and studies. Parties are being thrown. Memories are being made while some nights are better off forgotten. This is the time when most people are studying for their exams and planning their futures in detail.  Grad school applications are being filled out, job interviews are being scheduled. People are finding their people, while others are losing them.  The college experience is often described as the “best years of your life” without realizing that the real world and its problems don’t stop while attending classes.

Christina Ung was never a huge partier. On the weekends she dedicated her time to thrift store shopping and street photography, some weekends she’d drive down to the Bay Area to visit family with her siblings.

“Socially, I brought Amy to campus and events,” said Christina Ung, “I never had a friendship on campus that would be there for me like she would. Then again, she was 15 and always home so she had to listen to me babble.” Later that day she got a tattoo on her arm of her and all her siblings names in honor of Amy.

Amy was supposed to be getting ready for school that day and Christina was supposed to start giving her driving lessons over the Winter break. Christina woke up to the realization of her sister’s death. She had an exam later that day she wouldn’t take, and a concert she wouldn’t attend. Christina’s life and future had just been drastically changed in one morning.

“Ironically, she died when our dog Billie turned 11 months old,” she realized. Billie, is a Rottweiler was the shared responsibility of the two sisters. Now Christina had to take that on by herself among many other things.

With no past health issues, Amy’s death is undetermined. “We just know she did not wake up no matter how many chest compressions we did,” she explained. With Christina being twenty-one and finishing her final year at college, her life had been completely flipped upside down.

According to the Counseling & Psychological Services, also known as CAPS, at Oregon State University, as many as 1 in 3 college students face a significant loss whether it be a grandparent, a parent, a sibling, or a friend. But with a time when everyone is meant to be gaining independence,and  enjoying thoughts of the future, why be the downer? It’s often reported that those who grieve during this time don’t feel as though they can talk about it with their peers, often leaving them a deep sense of loneliness.

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Trees on Oregon State’s campus blooming their flowers

Jesse Goode is one of the busiest people on campus. Between studying for the LSAT, leading an academic team, learning how to rock climb and planning her wedding, she barely has time to eat her dinner. “I listen to like my roommate or some of my other friends and their biggest problems are studying abroad and not being with their boyfriends, and my biggest problem is feeling like my family is completely falling apart,” Jesse said. It can feel isolating, watching the people around you live the life you used to be living.

During her Sophomore year at Oregon State University Jesse Goode’s father passed away unexpectedly. After just six months, she and her family are still attempting to pick up the pieces that were left behind from the tragedy. Although she has found a great support system in her family, church and friends, Jesse is exceptionally aware of the loneliness that comes with grieving someone when she is supposed to be living some of her happiest years.

As students, we walk onto campus expecting the best, expecting the parties, expecting the new friends, expecting the budding relationships, but no one ever expects this. And, honestly, some students aren’t at the point where they know how to be there for someone who has lost a loved one.  “There’s just no way to wake some people up and show them how much you’re dealing with, so I think sometimes I just don’t,” Jesse states. “Some people don’t get the weight of it”. College students aren’t expected to face tragedies such as these.

Beth Zimmerman, the Clinical Care Manager for CAPS, explained that although about one-third of students are under these circumstances, the school counselors aren’t able to see them all.  “For some people their current support system, their spiritual base, or [by] working with a counselor in the community, they’re getting their needs met,” but she, and many researches, suggest group counseling as a way to handle this grief. “Having people around with a similar experience, it feels really powerful in the group space,” says Zimmerman. The feeling of isolation and loneliness that many counselors at CAPS so often hear, can be lessened by talking to others who can understand what it is the grieving student is going through. Without having a community to talk to or a way to process this loss it can, as she describes, “it will leak into our lives in ways that can be very painful, and distracting”. It can spill into not only your social life, but in your academic life as well.

Zimmerman likened grief to a roller coaster.  It isn’t just being really low at one point and then going back to normal. There’s twists and turns, ups and downs that vary throughout the different stages and last for many years. This emotional overload can leave a bereaved student mentally and physically exhausted.  Socializing becomes difficult because the mind and body are so overwhelmed but the emotions. Often, college students will feel as though they are contradicting what they are meant to be doing, which is looking towards the future when their minds are set in the past and coping with the present. It can become hard to want to be around friends and peers, leading sometimes to social isolation and depression. Not only does socializing become difficult but academic work and studies are presented as another hurdle to overcome.

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Being a college student is stressful enough as it is. There are essays to write, exams to study for, and jobs to apply to.  Both Jesse and Christina are applying for graduate programs and hope to continue their educational careers. The plans for graduate school have been a part of their lives for years, thus making a good grades a top priority.

“Academically I naturally try my best, although with the missed quizzes and exams it may hurt my grade because of the missed time from physically being in class,” explained Christina Ung, “I am graduating next semester so there is not much left to compare, only to finish.” She was able to take a week or so off of school in order to get the families affairs in order but got mixed reactions from her professors.

“One professor stood out, she said if I did not attend class, she would give me a write up assignment for missing attendance points,” states Ung when discussing the instructor whose exam she missed on the day of. “Another professor on the other end let me know that she would waive my final if I wanted since part of it was in relation to my sister.” Although she appreciated the instructors that offered help and support, those that didn’t give her the necessary extension made her grieving even more difficult.

A study made by Purdue University from 2001-2004 compared the grades of students who were grieving a loved one to those who were not.  For males, the bereaved students’ GPA was about .33 lower than their peers, whereas grieving female students were about .10 lower.  Grief is a distraction that can be seen for many college-aged individuals as detrimental for their grades. Although many teachers can be understanding and work with them, some will not compromise with the individual.

“Had I been more open with them, and talked more with them one on one, they would have been a lot more understanding, but I gave so little detail to the teachers,” reasoned Jesse.  Some professors offered her incompletes, dismissed certain assignments and offered as much flexibility as they could. Yet Jesse recounts an experience with one teacher who apologized then told her to “figure it out”. According to Oregon State’s website, an instructor is asked to offer the bereaved student with “reasonable compensatory experiences,” but that experience is determined by the teacher and whether they find it necessary given the situation.  This begs the question, how much does a student really need to reveal about their loss before they get sympathy from their superiors? Does this ultimately take away from their ability to learn.

College is seen as a wonderful opportunity to intellectually stimulate and evolve our education. And it is, but when dealing with a tragedy, the joy of learning and participating with classmates can become more stressful and exhausting.

“People didn’t get that I was different,” Jesse said. “I didn’t talk as much, I didn’t raise my hand as much.  I didn’t want to be pestered by the guy next to me. I was just there to finish what I needed to do and leave.”  She later revealed that it is the isolation and the feeling that “no one gets it” that can be so exhausting about sitting in a classroom. Jesse chose to keep her father’s death private and when people started to ask her why she was different, the concept of class and socializing became more and more draining. “I’m just not in the same boat as these people are anymore.”

Grieving someone is one of the most difficult things we face as human beings. It is our human essence and love for those around us that offers us the community and safety that we all crave.  The idea of our world becoming completely turned upside down by loss seems impossible, butif that does happen, a student can be left feeling isolated and that they have no proper way to express their grief.  Being aware that nearly a third of students face this type of significant loss during their college careers is essential for those who may feel as if they are the only ones who aren’t living their like their peers. It is assumed that everyone in college is going to parties, making happy memories, and pursuing a future when some can be mourning a person they weren’t ready to lose.  When asked what she thought of the notion of college “being the best years of our lives” Zimmerman stated, “this is a time in life when you are going to be growing exponentially on so many levels and across so many aspects of ones’ identities, and you’re going to learn to navigate very complex situations, and that includes loss.”

~ ~ ~

If you or a student you know at Oregon State University is in need of a community, or counseling due to the loss of a loved one please inform them of the program at CAPS for bereaved students. There is both individual and group therapy offered at OSU. For scheduling an appoint for either individual or group counseling call (541)-737-2131, or visit the website http://oregonstate.edu/counsel/.

Bibliography

*names are changed in bibliography for privacy reasons

Goode, Jesse. Personal Interview. 27 Nov. 2018.

Medari, Kim. “Study: Grief Has Impact of COllege Students’ Academic Performance.” Indiana’s Land Grant University, 4 Apr. 2006, www.purdue.edu/

“Student Bereavement.” Office of Registrar, 4 May 2017, registrar.oregonstate.edu/student-bereavment.

Ung, Christina. Personal Interview. 19 Nov. 2018.

Zimmerman, Beth. Personal Interview. 28 Nov. 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

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