When I started at Auburn in August 2016, I was like most other college freshmen: 18 and ready to take on the world, sure that I knew everything, vehemently independent. I saw the statistics about how often people change majors; but that was never going to be me. I knew most people gained the freshman 15; but that wasn’t going to be me. I had been told how many people struggle with depression in college; but even with my mild depressive and anxiety disorder diagnosis, that wasn’t going to be me. I was ready for the new phase of my life. I was nervous, excited, every emotion you can name. I was going to thrive.
And then, in April of 2017, I lost my dad.
It was sudden and unexpected; I went home on Good Friday for Easter and walked in my house to find that he had passed away from a heart attack. It threw a wrench in the rest of freshman year. Suddenly I had to get a job, settle an estate as legal next of kin, figure out how to navigate a world that was missing the best man I’d ever known. That eager, go-getting, ready-to-take-on-the-world 18-year-old girl was gone. In her place was a 19-year-old college freshman who had to grow up whether she wanted to or not; who felt utterly, completely lost.
Now, 22 and a month away from graduating college with my public relations degree, there are so many things I wish I could tell that girl. More than anything, I want to tell her that it’s all going to be okay; but I know at the time, that kind of vague moniker wasn’t what I wanted to hear. So if I could see her again, somehow, this is what I think I’d say:
1. Grief is a hell of a thing…
…but it’ll teach you who you really are. If I had the choice, I would, of course, bring my dad back. I think about him every day and would give anything to see him again. But the grieving process taught me so many valuable things about myself. For instance, I learned who my real friends were: not just the ones who sent me texts saying how sorry they were for my loss or who liked my Instagram post, but those who checked in on me every day, who brought my family food, who asked their parents to donate to the American Heart Association in my dad’s honor. I also learned that the boyfriend I thought I was going to marry was not, in fact, the one. I learned who was important to me, what was important to me, who I wanted to become. I really believe it made me who I am today.
So, young me, if you’re reading this, lean into it. Don’t suppress it; don’t try not to feel it. It feels so big, so hopeless, but believe it or not, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
And he’ll still be with you, I promise. You’ll feel him in the summer breeze, in the sound of the ocean; and especially every time you open a Budweiser (but only when you’re legal, of course).
2. Embrace change.
And, young me, I don’t just mean losing Dad; I mean all of it. Remember that insistence that I was never going to change majors? I started college as a creative writing major; somewhere along the way that became philosophy, and then finally public relations. And that dedication not to gain weight freshman year? I started sophomore year 20 pounds heavier than I came. And I don’t have to tell you that there were more than a few periods where depression and anxiety took over. There were quite a few times when I looked a little too much like this:
But I’ve come to realize that, cliche as it is, change only makes you stronger. I spent so long resisting it, but in the end, I’m thankful for all of it. That’s not to say that it wasn’t sometimes unpleasant. It was. But unpleasantness and discomfort are essential to growth.
So stick it out, sweet girl. I promise you’ll be grateful for it later.
3. Don’t rush it.
From my first day of college, I was already looking forward to graduating. I’ve always been a dreamer; I’m very ambitious, very driven, always thinking about what comes next. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s kept me focused and ensured that I’ll be graduating summa cum laude next month. But it has meant that I spent so much time focused on what was coming next that I missed what was happening in front of me.
And now, because of the pandemic, it’s gone, two months earlier than I expected.
I didn’t get to get a Toomer’s lemonade one last time, or take my mom to Skybar after graduation, or even really say goodbye to my friends and roommates. I didn’t even get to take my grad pictures on Samford lawn. I was so ready to leave, but now that it’s happened, I keep wishing for just one more day.
So my biggest piece of advice, younger me, is to slow down. Be present. Appreciate the late-night homework grind, the days after Skybar when you swore you’d never set foot in there again, the game days and the rainy days and everything in between.
It’ll be gone before you know it, and you’ll be left reminiscing for days like these.