The cover of my planner stares at me as I frantically search through my backpack for that one highlighter I swear I left in there somewhere, and I pause a moment. The notebook has a blank white cover that says, “What to focus on: happy.” Nothing elaborate, nothing preachy, just a friendly reminder. It caught my eye in the bookstore, not just because I desperately need to write things down, but because of the meaningful words.
In the past year, I’ve had some days where focusing on happiness was a bigger struggle than midterms. I forgot to love living because I was so wrapped up in the negatives; my grief, my anxiety and my fear of life. But today, I’m proud to say that I don’t need that planner to spark positivity as much as I used to. I don’t need an external reminder to smile in the morning.
I come from a large, close knit and loud but loving family. My brother and I are lucky enough to have countless aunts and uncles, and we grew up spending holidays playing with our numerous cousins, who were more like siblings. Then college came around, and my family was ecstatic for me to start at my dream school.
I was just as thrilled when I got to Boston College in the fall, but I still hid my nerves about living on my own behind my nonchalance and excitement. I wasn’t sure how I’d fare living like an adult for the first time, but I figured if I could work a washing machine and had some semblance of a normal sleep schedule, I just might be OK.
Lo and behold, I got through most of my semester unscathed and started to feel like I was adjusting. That fall didn’t escape the usual freshman year bumps: I was worried about first impressions, I was lonely on Saturday nights with no plans and I freaked out about handling school and finding my niche. But as the semester began to wind down, I was finding my rhythm.
But as I prepared for my first set of college finals, the floor dropped out beneath me. I got a call that my cousin, just a few short years older than I am, had been killed in a car accident. I heard the words but they didn’t seem real. What followed was one of the most trying times of my life—saying goodbye to a close, young cousin, so suddenly.
When I got back to campus after Christmas break, I felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety. I didn’t feel like I was in control of anything because I’d just seen how unfair and sudden life can be. And what was worse, I didn’t feel like I had anyone at school who would listen to my worries.
After the funeral I cowered in my dorm by myself. My family was constantly on my mind, and I didn’t have the energy to pretend I was alright. I was so relieved when I could be at home, where I didn’t have to explain myself to anyone. I was afraid that telling my friends about something real—and possibly crying in front of them—would scare them away. Though classes, clubs and friends kept me busy, I was hiding a persistent sadness that surfaced when I was alone. The grief was unlike any feeling I’d ever experienced; it came up often without warning and totally took over.
My freshman year carried on, and though I felt empty I made it to the end of another semester. The sun finally emerged after a long winter and I let myself enjoy the beautiful campus around me. But just a few months after one giant loss, my grandmother passed away at 93 after a long and happy life. Her death left another hole in an already grieving family.
I tried a lot of things to deal with the new, intense grief that seized me. I went to group sessions, made appointments with counselors, read books and came out stronger. It was a slow process, and one that became a cycle. I would be fine, something would trigger me and I would have to cope again. Finally, I put my fear of scaring new friends away aside and talked to a few close friends. They responded so compassionately that I felt the weight I’d been carrying drop immediately. I could breathe again. I felt like this time, I had help.
I had lost three significant people by the time my grandfather passed away in August, and each one gave me more of a perspective on life. While I didn’t go around telling everyone what I was feeling, I finally got over my fear of opening up to the people closest to me. My new friends only knew me at this grieving stage in my life, when I clearly wasn’t myself. But they amazed me when they stuck around anyway. We could still laugh together, or just hang out and watch a movie or sing along to Alicia Keys.
Now I feel like a new person, one I want my friends to know. I used to fear of a lot of things like not making friends or succeeding in college, but I don’t let those fears stop me from trying anymore. I used to be afraid of what others thought of me, but I know I can’t control everything. Now, I can let go.