On Going Back to School

Everyone reacts differently to the prospect of returning to school after the loss of a parent. Unfortunately, many kids have their worlds turned upside down in the middle of the year—if not, in the middle of the school week. After all, death does not wait to accommodate our school schedules. It’s tough to think about, framing the death of a parent in the context of the date of your next math quiz, but the hard truth is that the world doesn’t stop for you, no matter how desperately you need to take a breath to regain your footing. 


As with all things to do with grief, this is a very personal issue. Some kids find solace in work. Take me, for example. I was like a shark when I lost my dad—certain that if I stopped swimming, I’d drown. The day he died, my mother took me to the hospital where everyone had congregated, and rather than facing the room of pale, grief-stricken faces, I sat down and opened up my math notebook, fighting back tears. Within a day I was back in school. Within a week I was taking my midterms. I felt that if I stopped working, I’d fall apart. Sitting at home, all I could think about was what I’d lost. Not at school—school was full of distractions. 


I turned to my coursework in the wake of my dad’s death because it was something I could control. I fixated on attainable goals, allowed my brain to be filled with problems I could solve and books I could understand. I was good at school, and relished the smallest victories. Studying was predictable; studying afforded no opportunity for grief; studying promised reward. I enjoyed enveloping myself in my work because I could try to convince myself nothing had changed. I thought if I projected normalcy, I’d feel it, too. I feared, also, that if I lost momentum, I’d collapse upon myself. All I had that I could rely on not to hurt me were my books.


That is not the case for everyone. I have known those who found school a crushing burden in the wake of the loss of a parent. They found it did nothing but anger and upset them, making them anxious and depressed. I knew someone who hated going to school even months after their parent passed, because they felt that no one there understood them. They didn’t find sanctuary in books the way I did—rather, they found it difficult to care about their studies in the wake of such a life-shattering event. In perspective, school and books seemed insignificant; they felt that to give any weight to petty problems like math quizzes and textbook readings would be to undercut the gravity of their personal tragedy. School did nothing but isolate and anger them. 


Both of these reactions are completely normal and ok. School for you may be a sanctuary, or it may be a chore. Unfortunately, though, you can’t just quit. You can’t throw it all away and dissolve in a puddle of tears, much as you may want to (I know I did, sometimes). While you don’t have to rely on your studies to distract and protect you from the grief in your heart, you have to find a way to push yourself to continue. This may seem like the end of the world—and in a way, it is the end of the world as you knew it before—but one day you’ll look back and be glad you didn’t allow yourself to fall apart. 


I’m not suggesting you throw yourself back into everything as quickly as I did. Now, I wish sometimes that I had given myself more of a chance to breathe, to recover, to take everything in. I rushed myself, and ended up bottling up my sadness so intensely that it continues to bubble up even today, years later. Take the time you need for yourself to regain your stance. If you’re lucky, school will feel safe for you. If not, you’ll have to find a way to get into your old headspace and carry on with your responsibilities. Your relationship with your studies is your own, and whether work is your coping mechanism or not is just another part of your personal narrative. The grief will always be there, and as you wrestle with it, you’ll have to find a way to manage your homework and classes at the same time. It’s a difficult burden, and one that everyone reacts to differently. But no matter how you approach it, it’s important for your own mental health that you take time for yourself to find balance.

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