Death During College | Briana Johnson

Last week, my Aunt died. She’d been sick for a few weeks, she’d suffered a stroke some time before, and ended up passing away in her sleep.

I still try to say it out loud, but every time I try to say it, like really say it out loud, something feels wrong in my brain. The statement feels empty. The sensation mimics the feeling you get in your get when you’re lying.

I still think her death isn’t real, and that the text message didn’t come the morning after a night of Rocky Horror-induced antics. The text message didn’t come in the middle of a hangover, while your boyfriend is making you eggs, eggs that you refuse after feeling your stomach flip. And then it cramps, and your throat goes dry. And suddenly, you’re crying.

It’s that feeling when your brain is like “wait what the hell,” staring at your hands trying to figure out how to respond. So you call, and your mom softly explains the nitty-gritty circumstances on which she passed, and you spend the next two hours fearful of the pain that might be involved in dying.

Death has always been something I’ve kept to myself. When my grandmother died in high school, the woman who supported myself and my mother for years, I barely told anyone. It was crying in the bathroom at school, lying to people why I’m so quiet, not laughing as much as I usually do. I don’t know why or when I decided to stop telling people about death, but that’s sort of where it started.

And since then, when someone dies during the school year, I do the same thing. And don’t pity me for it, it’s a cycle I chose to go along with. But it’s supported by the sheer nature of schoolwork and jobs in general. When my Uncle David died my freshman year of college, I didn’t go to his funeral because I had two 8-foot-tall, mechanical puppets I had to finish for an art class. I had a parade coming up. Final papers. Exams. It was two weeks before the end of the semester. If I just bit my lip, took 20 minutes to cry, and slapped some more pink paint on the sad looking cardboard Medusa I was trying to make, I’d be fine, right?

So, when my Aunt died this past week, I contemplated doing the same thing, minus the cardboard and the puppets. I even debated trying to push through an 8 page essay; pushing through the essay meant I didn’t have to talk to anyone about death because I had the excuse of ‘I’m too busy, I have an 8 page essay to write.’

My boyfriend convinced me to email my professor for an extension.

Like many of the other extended family member’s deaths that happened during the past school years, I couldn’t go home for the funeral. And by couldn’t, I mean school doesn’t really make it convenient to do so.

Not to make excuses…but it’s really complicated when you’re stressed about classes all the time and somebody dies. Because you know what the right choice is, the one to go home and reunite with all the family members you haven’t seen in forever and hug your mom, but ultimately you choose the “wrong choice.” The one that leaves you staring at the ceiling of the off-white apartment walls.

Right, like that’s…that’s really complicated. Naturally, you should go home for someone’s funeral, but like I said before, the school doesn’t really accommodate that for me. Because I get stressed easily. Instead of grieving, because I go to a high-intensity college, I think about all the lectures I’m missing or all the assignments I could fall behind on because I’m not working…24/7. But grief likes to work 24/7, just as hard as my stressful academic brain, and so the two end up competing

Because in my brain, removing myself from the situation because I have to do schoolwork further creates this scenario that my Aunt, who I hadn’t seen in about a year and a half, is just out there living her life. I didn’t see the last breath, I didn’t witness the moments leading up to death, so my brain just throws its hand up and goes “so it can’t be true.” When somebody dies, college can feel like this strange bubble that you never signed up for. Because this bubble doesn’t pop, you can’t get out of it until you really have to.

I started to realize, within this past week, how awful it is that we try to replace the memory of a person with school, and work, and silence.

So please, send your professors that email. Take your time. Tell your friends. Tell your coworkers. Tell somebody you don’t know so they know that the reason you’re staring blankly at a wall isn’t just because you feel like it.

You’ll know when taking breaks is too much, and you’ll know when there hasn’t been enough.

Talk to your family.

Tell them you love them.

Take the time to remember the people you’ve lost, and forget about that shitty assignment for a couple days. It isn’t worth the worry; you only have so long with everyone around you.

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