When I was a student in college, I was a perfectionist. I studied tirelessly to achieve straight A’s, joined numerous clubs, participated in social events and activities, and scheduled coffee dates with friends after class. I grew up with the mentality of an overachiever and prioritized everyone else’s requests at every beck and call.
At the time, being an overachieving perfectionist didn’t seem detrimental or unhealthy. In fact, I saw myself as a thriving, seemingly successful young adult, and I wholeheartedly believed that I could handle anything thrown my way.
During the spring semester of my junior year, my Grandma suffered a sudden brain hemorrhage in the middle of the night. I spent the weekend at the hospital with the rest of my family as we learned that the damage was irreversible. When the weekend came to an end, I tried to avoid the inevitable and went back to school to focus on my classes and extracurricular commitments.
It was no surprise to those around me that I tried to get back to my studies as quickly as possible. I felt like to stay level-headed, I needed to be at school and try to maintain my normal routine as much as I could. My Grandma passed away on Monday morning, and I forced myself to show up for my afternoon classes just a few short hours later.
With only one month left in the semester, I set my grief aside and worked harder than ever to finish the semester with a 4.0 GPA. I applied for internships for the following year. My friends filled my weeks with coffee runs and girls’ nights to check in on me and make sure that I was doing okay.
When the spring semester ended, I moved home for the summer to be close to my Grandpa. The loss had taken its toll on him, and I wanted to do everything in my power to make his life brighter and sweeter. I signed up for online summer classes to keep my mind busy.
For nearly two months, I spent as much time with my Grandpa as I could. Unfortunately, my world turned upside down again and my Grandpa passed away unexpectedly just months after my Grandma. I couldn’t believe I was up against another tragedy, but I couldn’t let it stop me. Two days after my Grandpa passed away, I completed a midterm exam for one of my summer classes and received a 100%.
When classes wrapped at the end of the summer, the reality of the two sudden losses I had experienced finally started to sink in. Physical symptoms started piling on one-by-one. My appetite was non-existent. At night when I laid in bed, and it felt like time was passing slowly while I stayed awake with my eyes shut. My heart thumped loudly in my chest at all times. The sound of my heartbeat was deafening, and despite knowing that I didn’t feel “right,” it took weeks before I asked for help.
I worked up the courage to visit urgent care. I described all of my symptoms to the doctor: pounding heartbeat, inability to relax, overwhelm, non-existent appetite, fatigue. She asked if I had experienced any major stressful events within the last year. Tears filled my eyes and I said, “Well, my grandparents just passed away. My Grandma in April and my Grandpa in July. And I haven’t slowed down to process how I’m feeling.” At that very moment, I realized that even though the way I was working myself seemed okay on the surface, I was merely distracting myself from battling some internal work I needed to do.
Suppressing grief taught me a lot about the unhealthy ways in which I had learned to prioritize other people and commitments before myself. Despite being able to continue to perform my best in school, I was suffering inside, and was ignoring it. Working hard was what I knew best, and I knew deep down that grieving was going to be uncomfortable.
Sudden loss was my well-being wakeup call, and through the grieving process, I learned effective strategies for carving out time for myself on a regular basis. Today, I’m thankful that the last lesson my grandparents left me with was how to prioritize myself, especially when faced with the unexpected.
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