Content warning: Loss of a parent
For a lot of university students, the beginning of a new year on campus is filled with uncertainty, fear and a lot of worrying. Most of us go from a four-month break to being thrust back into a world of deadlines, social negotiation and financial burden. In short, it’s stressful to start a new year at school.
The start of my third year in university was filled with a different kind of stress; the kind that only comes from grief. That was the year I decided to go back to school instead of taking a year off to cope with the loss of my dad. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made, and I’m glad I chose to stay on.
My dad had passed away very suddenly of a heart attack in the summer of 2021. It left my entire family in a state of disarray. My response at the time was to shut myself off. I couldn’t talk, I wouldn’t eat and I spent most of my days staring at the TV just trying to numb myself.
Things got brighter, though. After a month, my friends managed to get me out to a few gatherings again, and my immediate family enjoyed a few nice summer trips. We played frisbee golf in Almonte, spent time with cousins at our cottage and enjoyed late nights outdoors, watching old movies on a beat-up projector in our backyard.
Finally, over a meal of hotdogs during my end-of-summer camping trip, the realization that I’d be going back to school set in.
For the first two years of classes, the beginning of each fall term was incredibly intimidating. The harsh deadlines and my high expectations for myself, coupled with the ever-changing course-delivery format brought on by the pandemic made me feel like I could never be prepared enough for school. Add it all up, and panic attacks became the norm for me during the first few weeks of school until I could settle in.
You can imagine what was going through my head then, as the deadline to back out of school was fast approaching in the midst of a very dark time in my life. I felt scared and alone with nobody to turn to.
School gave me something to focus on, it gave me friends to turn to in times of need. And most of all, it gave me a way to reconnect with my dad — a lifelong learner who had passed that love down to me.
Encouraged by my mom, I decided to reach out to the school to ask for help and accommodations for the upcoming term. I wasn’t expecting much; I had heard a lot of poor feedback from peers about Carleton’s different support options. I was scared I would be left without much of anything, but I knew it wouldn’t hurt to at least try.
Immediately I was met with compassion and understanding. Several administrators went out of their way to make sure I was doing OK, that I was set up with counselling services to cope with my loss. Some even emailed my professors — even those outside of the journalism faculty — to let them know my situation.
For the first time, that opening week of school went by without any panic attacks. I was able to relax and take my studies one day at a time without the pressure of a bad grade weighing in my every thought. And thanks to smaller class sizes in my third year and a return to in-person learning, I was able to make some new lifelong friends for the first time in my university years.
Ironically, the school routine that I had so desperately feared returning to became how I bounced back from my grief. School gave me something to focus on, it gave me friends to turn to in times of need.
And most of all, it gave me a way to reconnect with my dad — a lifelong learner who had passed that love down to me.
School still gives me anxiety sometimes. Deadlines are still deadlines, and working on an assignment late into the night — not knowing if it’s good enough — still gets to me. But I know I can do it. If I could get through the toughest year of my life and still succeed, I know I can handle anything university throws at me.