College campuses are not generally associated with grief, but according to Actively Moving Forward, between 22 and 33 percent of college students have lost a family member or close friend in the last year, which equates to roughly 4.5 million college students who are grieving. From my experience and from asking friends from colleges all over the country, colleges and universities have generally done an outstanding job with providing support for victims of sexual abuse, substance abuse, and depression, which is an incredible feat that I support whole-heartedly. However, grief is a very unique experience which requires its own type of attention and support. Student counseling centers are an indispensable resource, but in reality, only 10 percent of students, on average, utilize them. As a result, there must be more attention brought to these millions of young people, most of whom are suffering very privately. Grief is unique to everyone who experiences it and is incredibly complex and personal, but that should not hinder our ability to share our stories. Grief must not be a struggle that we fight alone.
Grief is a unique experience that everyone must grapple with in their own terms, but experiencing the incredibly deep emotions that grief requires is even more complicated when living as a college student. Most of these young people are living away from home and are forced to cope with their emotions while also being distanced from their family, who tend to be the people who understand the loss most deeply. Another aspect that makes grieving in college particularly difficult is that there is usually a great amount of support shown immediately following the loss, but grief often peaks four months after the loss, while the individual is generally expected to be moving forward. Furthermore, college is a very social place, as well as a place of academics and activity, and many grieving young people feel the pressure to immediately reintegrate themselves into the culture of college before they are emotionally prepared to do so. Consequentially, many students can feel isolated in their grief.
When my family lost my mother in October, the outpouring of love and support was overwhelming. Although I knew my friends at school would do anything they could to help me, I was just unable to express exactly what I needed. I’m still unable to express what it is that I need, but my best way of explaining it is that I need someone who understands exactly what I’m feeling in my heart, and I know that that is impossible because although everyone experiences loss, everyone experiences loss differently. The very deep personal emotions of grief have been difficult for me to share, especially among my friends at school. Brene Brown writes in her book "Rising Strong," “Owning our stories of heartbreak is a tremendous challenge when we live in a culture that tells us to deny our grief.” Grief is universal, yet rarely discussed openly. I believe part of the fact that grief is something that is kept so hushed is because it is so elusive and mysterious to us, but I also believe that this incomprehensibility that surrounds grief would be much more tolerable if people felt comfortable expressing their emotions openly.
I’ve had a handful of friends who have been an incredible support system and essential throughout this journey, and I am so incredibly thankful to all of them. I believe that sharing our stories of grief and heartbreak is crucial to healing. Storytelling is such an incredible gift of being human and allows us to grow in compassion and empathy, something imperative in understanding grief. As difficult as this process has been, and I’m sure will continue to be, I have found great respite and comfort in sharing what I can with people I love, and I can only hope that others who are experiencing similar losses in college can find a secure place to do the same.