SAK: Grief shouldn’t wait
We must be able to care for ourselves without feeling guilty — even when we’re busy or the timing is inconvenient.
April 24, 2023
On March 9, I was feeling good. A week earlier, my roommate and I secured a room for next year in a Residential College. On Monday, my first-choice employer offered me a summer internship. Since I have no Friday classes, I was only one class away from a much-needed Spring Break which I was planning to kick off with a trip to the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament to cheer on our team.
At 12:32 PM, the phone rang. My mom called to inform me that my dog, Charlie, passed away. He had died that morning surrounded by my parents and sister around the time I was deep in a discussion about Ready Player One’s applications in media ecology. My mom waited to call to avoid interrupting me during class.
A loved one who had been a fixture in my life since the third grade was gone. I needed to cry but I couldn’t. I had a long walk across campus back to my dorm and needed to grab lunch on the way, so I fought off the tears until I was confined in a more private locale.
I only had so much time before my next class, so for efficiency’s sake, I opted to sob and eat my quesadilla simultaneously. After 10 or so minutes of this emotional multitasking, I turned to my roommate, who was sitting with me to offer his silent support, and asked “Is it bad that I’m considering skipping my last class today?” He assured me that taking a personal day and missing just one class would be completely appropriate, but I had already begun spiraling.
I feel like I shouldn’t go, but there’s a quiz today, and I don’t want to fall behind. Technically two of the quizzes are dropped from my final grade, so I could miss this one. But what if one goes poorly later, and I could have done better with this one? Maybe I can just go to the first part of class, so I don’t miss the quiz. I should probably email the professor about what I’m doing. What if he thinks I’m just trying to ditch class and start my Spring Break 45 minutes early? I don’t want to look like I’m taking advantage. Maybe I should just hold off on mourning until after the lesson on presidential campaigns’ use of social media.
My thoughts were controlled by emotion, not reason. Missing half of class for the first and possibly only time all semester was a small ask to give me more processing time. I emailed my professor about only coming to the first half hour of class. He was extremely understanding, but I still couldn’t help feeling uneasy — guilty almost — about my decision. I always believed in powering through the hardships in life, and this decision felt like an admission of defeat.
I laid in bed staring at pictures of my dog for as long as my schedule permitted and then began my hike back across campus to take my quiz. After turning it in, I stopped by CVS to buy something to ease the pain. I knew I needed a pint of ice cream, but I wanted to buy one more thing: a stuffed animal. I have no clue why, but deep down I believed it would make me feel better. As I walked to CVS, I swore to myself I would get one, but once I got to the aisle with the Easter plushes, the doubt crept back in.
Was I really going to waste money on a stupid toy just because of an irrational impulse? As if playing hooky wasn’t bad enough, now I’m going to waste money on a stuffed bunny with a stupid bow around its neck? It’s just irresponsible.
I pushed the voices aside and purchased the Ben & Jerry’s and bunny for a whopping $16.68. I needed to ignore the generic “right thing to do” and instead do the right thing for me.
I returned to my room, and began to weep again as I shoveled ice cream into my mouth. I was alone, so I clung to my new stuffed friend for comfort. I only had enough time to eat half of the pint since the line for Vanderbilt basketball tickets was filling up fast. I didn’t want my day to get any worse by missing out on the game that I’d been looking forward to.
As college students, we live busy lives, but we still have to be able to tend to our own needs, especially as we increasingly become more independent. It is not selfish or opportunistic to care for ourselves, but that can be easy to forget when we become entrenched in our other obligations.”
I waited in line for over two hours, powering through the waves of sadness and trying to distract myself with talk about Vanderbilt’s March Madness odds and the Mean Girls musical soundtrack. But between all the random conversations, I again felt guilty.
Growing up, the rule was always that if you didn’t go to school, you didn’t get to do other fun things that same day. Per that standard, I had no business standing in that line since I had not gone to all of my classes. The logical foundation was wobbly at best, but I still couldn’t shake the thought.
While I was wandering the stadium, I had finally started to forget about my terrible day and the thoughts that had been plaguing me. Then I passed someone I recognized and waved to him cheerily. I didn’t comprehend what had just happened until after I passed.
It was the professor whose class I left early that afternoon.
I was caught. My scam was over. I was Ferris Bueller and there was Ed Rooney waiting for me next to a Dippin Dots stand. Then I realized something else: he had waved back to me with a smile on his face too. I may have been worried about my decision, but that professor clearly wasn’t.
I managed to push aside my worries — about Charlie, about my professor and about the guilty feeling I couldn’t shake — for just a few hours and enjoy the rest of the game. When I got back, I didn’t want to cry again. I was still in pain, but I figured I could wait until a better time to finish processing the loss.
I’m still not sure whether I didn’t have the time or I didn’t make the time, as it was more than two weeks before I had an open space in my schedule to grieve. Friday, March 24th at 11 pm. was free. I walked into the shower and started sobbing. I hadn’t moved on or processed the loss, and out of nowhere it hit me all at once the first time that I had a free moment to myself.
Losing my childhood pet was the hardest experience I have had while at college. Confronting the death of a loved one is difficult enough as it is, but this was a journey I went on alone. I needed to take care of myself because I was the only person who could. If leaving a class early, buying a stuffed bunny and screaming at the top of my lungs at a basketball game help me cope, then I should do those things.
Sadly, it’s easy to get priorities mixed up. I felt guilty because I had convinced myself that I wasn’t supposed to miss class or waste money on a toy. I got so swept up in “doing the right thing” that I wound up doing the most harmful thing I could have: I made myself feel even worse.
Self-care is not always easy, but it is a skill we all need to practice. I wish I could say I’ve learned my lesson and will never neglect my emotional well-being again, but I know I’m a work in progress.”
As college students, we live busy lives, but we still have to be able to tend to our own needs, especially as we increasingly become more independent. It is not selfish or opportunistic to care for ourselves, but that can be easy to forget when we become entrenched in our other obligations. When my dog died, I got lost trying to navigate through my academic and professional obligations that I neglected my most important responsibility: taking care of myself.
I share this story not as a critique or warning, but rather as a learning experience. Self-care is not always easy, but it is a skill we all need to practice. I wish I could say I’ve learned my lesson and will never neglect my emotional well-being again, but I know I’m a work in progress.
Instead of saving our emotions for a convenient time, we need to continuously push back against those voices saying “maybe later” because it’s never the wrong time to care for ourselves.