I Lost My Father In College

But I learned valuable lessons through my grief

He died on Ash Wednesday. It wasn’t our holiday, but there was something sacred, something symbolic, about seeing ashes smeared on the foreheads of the visitors in the hospital waiting room. I had arrived too late to say good-bye, although I don't think I would have been able to even if I had been given the chance. What was left to say?

When I arrived, my uncle was wandering throughout the halls of the hospital, trying to get a hold of the doctors. When he returned a few minutes later, he pulled me aside. There was no privacy in the room — almost every chair was occupied.

"Do you want to see him?" he asked. He meant: Did I want to see the body?

Well over 6 feet tall, he had always physically towered over me, but now, for the first time, he seemed powerless, small.

"No," I said. I didn't have to think about it. He wasn't my father anymore.

My dad was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia when I was 17. He was an incredibly supportive father. He was an assistant Little League coach for my softball team and the first reader of any story, homework assignment, or essay I would write.

His support perhaps became most pronounced in the context of my relatively turbulent college experience. When I took a difficult, three-year leave of absence from Princeton after struggling through my freshman year, he always believed that I would return to school and graduate.

Losing him while I was in college, therefore, was particularly challenging. When I returned to Princeton's campus after the funeral, I was startled to see how easily classes and campus activities had continued while my life had been forever changed. I felt isolated by the huge loss I had sustained and doubted that more than a few students my age could identify with such a burden.

I somehow made it through the rest of that semester, but grappled with what still lay ahead. In fact, before my dad died, I assumed grief was a battle against the past — that grieving meant dwelling on memories and refusing to let go of old photographs and articles of clothing. But I quickly learned that grief often focuses on the future. I had to recognize that my father would not be cheering in the stands when I tossed off my graduation cap that spring. He wouldn't walk me down the aisle at my wedding and, if I ever have children, he will never get to know them or be the doting grandparent I always imagined he would be. A future without him seemed empty.

Losing a parent at 23 meant relinquishing not only a relationship I had since birth, but also the new, adult relationship we were just beginning to develop. Though we had always been close, I didn’t realize how little I knew about my dad’s young adult days until I left high school. In the short time before college, he opened up about failed romances, his college years, and his unrealized dreams of becoming a speechwriter or professor. I began to see him as an equal. He was someone I could confide in, and he was just beginning to confide in me.

This loss has been painful, but I truly believe that my grief has taught me valuable lessons, too — like what it means to be a true friend to one in need. I am forever grateful to my friends for their consistent support during that trying first year. Even now, I live for their stories about little moments they shared with my dad. I am grateful that those who never got a chance to know him have allowed me to ramble on and on about him.

In my final semester of college, a professor of mine argued that humans are not innately resilient — that we develop resilience in response to the circumstances thrust upon us. I developed resilience after my father's death. So did my twin sister, my mom, and other surviving members of the family.

I wear a chain with the Hebrew symbol "chai" around my neck. "Chai" represents life as well as my dad's Hebrew name, Chaim. A relative once asked if wearing this symbol is ironic given that he is no longer alive, but I feel the opposite is true. I wear the necklace to symbolize that my father's 65 years on this earth, full of resilience and beauty, will always have meaning.

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