OP-ED: How I handled grief as a student

Photo courtesy of Harvard Business Review | Staff Writer Toni Carlotta talks about their experience of dealing with a major health issue at school and gives advice for handling the grief that comes with it.

I’m a fairly happy person. Not only am I blessed with a number of supportive people who have helped me navigate my time here at Xavier, but I also have a number of things going in my direction and I finally have a faux pink fur coat in my closet.

If you knew me at this time last year, you’d understand why I have a sense of gratitude for my life and education. After a year of pain, I have some idea of how to properly handle grief while in college.

In October of 2016, I nearly died from systemic lupus, an autoimmune disease where the immune system mistakes healthy tissues and organs for diseased tissue and attacks it. Lupus caused my brain to swell and caused three seizures, anemia, fevers and potential kidney failure all in less than a week.

I was given chemotherapy medicine while in an eight-day coma and I know I wouldn’t be alive without it. This began my once-a-month chemotherapy treatments for the next six months. Personally, I couldn’t fully grasp the situation yet and refused to let the reality sink in for as long as I possibly could.

Not knowing who to turn to because I felt like a burden, I handled it by pushing it aside. Being that sick was one of the hardest experiences I’ve gone through. I’d visit my professors crying because I was more worried about failing classes than my own physical and mental health. Putting my education first had always been my prerogative. By putting school first, I remained in denial with myself and my emotions because it was easier to ignore them than to think about them.

Exactly six months after my health scare, my older sister, Kendall, overdosed last February on the 13th. It was three days before my 20th birthday. At that point, I really thought the universe was turning my existence into a sick joke.

After pushing myself for nearly a month after my sister’s death, I finally had to come to terms with my mental state. I was falling apart, my face blew up from medical steroids, my hair didn’t return for six months and I felt like a burden.

Sitting in class for more than five minutes without bursting into tears was impossible. For once in my life, I couldn’t focus on school to fix my problems. The hardest thing to do was admit I needed to take a medical leave of absence and focus on my life, but it was the best thing that I did for myself in the long run.

Slowly, with the help of many great people on and off campus, I learned how to cope with this sudden shift in my life. I wasn’t just grieving my sister, I was grieving my life before chemo and my diagnosis. I can say that a year after my sister’s death, I feel at peace with many aspects of the past year.

Being a college student is hard enough without factoring in finances, health issues and family issues. For anyone reading who may be going through an excessive amount of stress, I give you this advice:

1. Practice mindfulness and being in the moment (try deep breathing or focusing on your surroundings and what you see/feel/hear instead of stressful thoughts).

2. Give yourself time to unwind and focus on your self-care needs.

3. Talking to a counselor doesn’t make you broken. While family and friends are (sometimes) a good support system to lean on, some issues require someone who’s equipped to help.

4. Sometimes, taking a step back from school is the only option and that is OK. Things sometimes take a wrong turn, but that doesn’t mean everything is over.

Nothing is permanent, especially not certainty. College is a strange time for everyone, so make sure you’re your own first priority.

Toni Carlotta is a junior communication studies major. They are a staff writer for the Newswire from Cincinnati.