Intro to Me: College and Grief

(This is part 2 of my 3-part “Intro to Me” series. You can read the first one here.)

“Today’s goal: Accept that grief is a tangle. Don’t waste your time trying to tease apart the happy memories from the pain. Instead, do your best to hold it all—the whole snarl, the beautiful and the terrible. Keep moving.” — Maggie Smith

It was 2014 when I was laying on a broken futon in my dorm room, 313, in Martin Hall. My roommate was gone for the weekend so I invited a boy over and we cuddled on the couch. Like “good” Christian kids, it started with hand holding, his arm around my shoulder, and the next thing I knew we were laying horizontally and laughing about whatever show we were watching on Netflix. Probably The Office. Then, he kissed me. This nerdy looking boy kissed me! Like I said, we were “good” Christian kids, so I pushed him away and said, “we need to talk about this.” We immediately decided we were boyfriend and girlfriend. So, that was that for the rest of my college years. We were inseparable, at least for that season of our lives.

College was amazing; it was the best three years (yes, three, because I am an overachiever) of my entire life. On the same note, it has generated some of the most traumatic grief I may ever face. While college holds memories of self-discovery, midnight donut runs, and the best friends ever (no, seriously, like ever), this is all partnered with grief. It would be unfair to me and my own story if I tried to separate the two. Grief has permanently shaded this season of my life. I have come to accept it. This was no easy feat. Grief is really really really weird and it takes many forms. Some days grief creeps on top of me like one of those gross bacteria monsters in a medicinal commercial you see on T.V. Some days grief hits me like a train out of nowhere when I see things that make me think of him, like squirrels or a silver Grand Marquis. Some days the grief leaves me alone and makes no appearance. To be honest, those are my favorite days because my mind is at peace from the constant battle that is grief.

It was October 2nd, 2017 when I called my supervisor to let her know I was unable to come into work that day. This was unusual for me, but my car was having trouble starting. I decided to take advantage of the day and do my seminary schoolwork. I pulled out my ethics textbooks and my Hebrew Bible when I noticed my phone had about five missed calls. Seriously. 8am on a Monday morning. One of those missed calls was from my college boyfriend’s sister-in-law. Seeing as we had been broken up for about a year, I thought it was a butt-dial. I called the other name that appeared on my screen and I could tell something was wrong.

 

“Have you talked to Tim’s family?” she asked.

“Well, not recently, but his sister-in-law did just call me and I thought it was an accident,” I replied.

“Hang up. Call her. Call me back. Right now,” she commanded me.

 

I did just that, and his sister-in-law instantly answered my call. She didn’t even give a greeting when she picked up the phone, and I immediately knew what had happened. I screamed. She cried. I thought I would throw up into the phone. She repeated over and over, “I’m so sorry, Alyssa. I’m just so sorry. He loved you so much.” He had done the thing we were always afraid of. The thing that caused me to stay up many nights with him and keep him safe. The thing that always felt inevitable to me. Tim took his own life.

Within 48 hours, I got on a plane and flew to Indiana. My entire world was flipped upside down as I paused my life in Georgia and picked up a past life in Indiana. Remember how I said grief is really really really weird? His younger sister let me borrow her red Prius so I could drive back and forth from where I was staying and the funeral home. Dressed in my flamingo-patterned Lily Pulitzer dress (his family requested no black) that I wore the first Easter we spent together, I mentally prepared myself to walk into his viewing. Ok, to be honest, I did little to no mental preparation; I just walked in and tried to be invisible. You really cannot prepare for this sort of event. Death and grief always interject themselves into our lives unannounced and unwanted.

There are a lot of things that happened between the viewing, the funeral, and the graveside service. Sometimes it feels like a blur, but if I really stop myself, and only in a safe place, I can reach out and thumb my way through each moment of that weekend. Those days feel permanently ingrained in my memory. That is how trauma works. I remember the way some people glared and gawked at me in the funeral home in my pink dress and high heels. I remember going to his home, on behalf of his family, to look for his phone and glasses because “Tim just doesn’t look like Tim without his glasses,” and we hoped for answers on his phone. There were none. I remember standing outside his house with a childhood friend as we let the rain fall poetically on our tear-streaked faces and talked about how Tim felt God in the rain. I remember bowling and having a picnic with his family after the funeral because it was his mom’s birthday and they invited me to join them because it felt natural. I remember saying goodbye to his family after everything we had just walked through together, knowing it may be the last time I ever see them but also knowing that they will forever hold a place in my heart. Grief bonds people.

Many of these things I would like to forget, but some things you cannot unsee or un-feel. There are other things that I want to hold onto forever. Like the way his older sister embraced me in the hallway of the funeral home. Or how his family asked that I sit in the front row with them during the funeral and we held each other during the service, crying and laughing and pinching ourselves back to this wretched reality. Or how countless college friends and acquaintances drove several hours to give their condolences. Or how some of those people, ones who knew us well and ones who did not, sat with me in the hallway, got me water and held my hand after I approached his casket and almost fainted. Or the professor who asked me by Tim’s graveside, “at any given moment, how many emotions are you feeling?” only to respond back to me, “yes, that is quite normal,” helping me to feel less alien because of who I was in this space and processing an infinite amount of emotions. These people saw me in my grief, regardless of how culturally unaccepted it may be, and they accepted me, loved me, and supported me. I thank God for them because I couldn’t even be those things for myself. I listened to the lies and told myself that I didn’t deserve to grieve him. But that is all they are: lies. Our stories are unapologetically intertwined, so of course, I grieve him.

A lot happened in between those years of that first kiss in Martin Hall and our last kiss in the seminary Village. Some things will never see the light of day, at least here, and that’s how it should be. Our story is our story. What people need to know, if they care to know, is that we deeply loved one another and amicably agreed to break up. But the love we shared never left the space between us. Sometimes there are people like that in our lives, and we do not get to choose what lingers and what may disappear. It can be frustrating, I know dear friend, but life is a beautiful mess.

Now, it is 2019 and I am deeply impacted by this grief and trauma. It has taught me about the importance of counseling and a supportive community. That is how I have not allowed grief to consume me whole. It has emboldened me to speak out against the stigma of mental illness because I know Tim was sick and that is why he is gone too soon from the world–too soon to have his beagle farm or get to watch his bride walk down the aisle. I have learned that you can hold both grief and joy in the same step since my beloved husband walks with me through this exhausting and confusing grief.

Dear friend, you are not alone. If you struggle with mental illness, you are not alone. If you are walking with someone struggling with mental illness, you are not alone. If you do not know where your grief or your story fits in the narrative with everyone else, you are not alone. You are as unique as your grief and there is nothing abnormal about it. I pray you gather the courage to do just as the quote that I first shared with you says: hold it all, the grief and joy and loss and life, together. I keep moving the only way I know how, with grace and heart and clumsiness and humility, because there is no perfect way to grieve. I pray that you keep moving too because you can move without forgetting what has shaped you.

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