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Grief in four corners

Sam Johnson Room.jpg
Sam Johnson / The Daily Princetonian

The room, or rather the bedroom, has become the spawning point for students everywhere. We get up in various time zones to take classes from our desks, our kitchens, and — most comfortably — our beds, and we greet our peers through Zoom. Our rooms are sometimes shared with others; other times they are decorated in our individuality. They could be covered in posters and art or permeated by plants and books. Regardless of its interior design, the room is where the never-ending cycle of class, sleep, Netflix, eat, and repeat takes place. 

With the lockdown and strict quarantine earlier this year, my room has become the very essence of me, an extension of myself. I’ve rearranged it countless times in attempts to mitigate the boundary of who I was when I left for college and who I am now since I returned in the spring of 2020. A room where I once played with dolls has become a makeshift Firestone, the space where I interview for jobs, and a place to eat my meals. As we all adapted to virtual learning, I felt a growing feeling of pride in the space I called my own. But as death seemed to permeate my family, it left no space untouched. 


I was seated at my personal desk in the middle of a Zoom lecture when my mother came into my room unannounced. We had tried to establish a semblance of privacy with funny “do not disturb” signs, but my room has always served as a central meeting place. My great-grandmother, whom I called “Nanny,” had been unexpectedly ill and rapidly declining in a way that could only invoke our worst fears. 

Two months past our exit from campus, I had a strong feeling that my family would not go untouched by COVID-19. The coupling of the continued unjust killing of Black men and women nationwide with a pandemic that was consistently disproportionately hitting people of color left me devoid of hope. I promptly left in the middle of my lecture, something I never would have had the guts to do in person. My grandmother was the only one allowed in the hospital room, so she FaceTimed us as we gave our final goodbyes. As my mother, brother, and I expressed our love for Nanny, she remained unresponsive while nurses heavily garbed in extensive PPE circulated the room. 

It was my first acknowledgement that my reality had concretely changed. 

The world around me was becoming disconnected and dystopian. The phone that brought us together, that so often was utilized in fostering communication with another, was the same tool that severed contact forever. We held each other in disbelief in the doorway of my room. 

Another aspect of this changed reality was the limited capacity of funerals: only four people were allowed to pay their respects. I was isolated from my loved ones in a time of mandated isolation. I couldn’t stand six feet apart from grief or socially distance from fear. 

With the freedom that comes with summer, I tried to push away that burdening feeling after successfully completing my freshman year. I felt a sliver of hope that things would improve or that we could collectively progress in our quest to eradicate the threat of the virus. I made goals for myself and planned to expand my horizons in the upcoming semester, joining The Daily Princetonian being one of them. I reorganized my room once again; the four corners filled with plants, posters, and a full-length mirror. I attempted to cover up that emptiness. 


Another semester of Zoom University was met with apathy, yet I felt slightly happy to be busy again. I was happy to reconnect with old friends and classmates, ready to leave my freshman status behind and enter into the defining role as a sophomore. I tried to be a bit more outspoken, laugh a bit louder, and maintain somewhat of an active virtual presence on social media. I thoroughly enjoyed the start of my classes and felt an odd sense of virtual belonging beginning to rise within me. In preparation for midterms, I created a time-table for assignments due in the upcoming three-week period. Life seemed to be regaining a sense of normalcy, and I was focusing on other projects besides my grandmother’s death.

In the midst of my endeavors, however, I was met with another blow when my great-grandmother’s sister passed away from a lung infection. Fresh from a swim, I was greeted by my mother with news no one wishes to hear. Three days later, the woman who I deemed the “fairy godmother” of my life, my beloved Aunt Berniece, passed away. In the midst of grief for one, we began to grieve the loss of another. In the preparation of one funeral, we began to plan for a second. For two weekends in a row, I ended my week of classes ready to get dressed in black and make my way to another church service, another burial, another loss. But time didn’t allow me to catch my breath. On the day of my Aunt Berneice’s funeral, my great-grandfather was sent to the hospital with acute kidney failure. This cacophony of death and illness fought against my resolve, and I retreated back to the comfort of my room. This double feature of death instilled an odd fear of what was to come at the end of the week. The feeling of dread began on Monday and left me steaming with anxiety on Friday, creating a new cycle: class, eat, funeral, repeat. 

I was left fragile and beaten down. I put off everything but school; I couldn’t find it within myself to respond to the Snapchats of my friends or even write a draft for the article I was stoked to pitch a month prior. My goal for each day was to get through class and complete my assignments. The dreams I once fantasized in the summer were beginning to feel deferred, much like the Langston Hughes poem. I was sagging like a heavy load and perhaps on the cusp of exploding. I stayed in my room as much as possible, fearing that any interaction with my parents could be a possibility for more bad news. My great-grandfather’s diagnosis of kidney failure had turned to one of multiple myelomas. The doctor shakily projected that he had one week left to live. The doctor was not wrong. 

In the time between my great-grandfather’s passing and his funeral, my grandfather was sent to the hospital for an abnormality during his weekly dialysis. My mother tried to comfort me as I turned to face the empty white wall of my bedroom. I felt that emptiness and identified with it. I couldn’t process any more loss or in this case the threat of it. I understood how blessed I was to have my grandparents, let alone my great-grandparents in my life. But what I couldn’t understand was the rate and frequency at which this was all happening. I didn’t want to imagine a world outside of my room and the danger it seemingly possessed: the state of our nation in this pandemic and the rapidness of my family being dismantled. I had myself, and I had the solace that my room brought me. 

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As October came to a close, I awaited November with multi-faceted fears: one of what this month would look like and the other of the anticipated election that seemed to weigh heavily on the minds of Americans across the nation. Having made it through the month with only one funeral and no ailing family members, I am trying to hold onto this peace that I’ve been given. I am trying to dream again, to root myself back in the trivial things and hobbies I once held dear. To venture past the place that held my grief and into the community that I treasure. When we return to campus next semester, I hope to embrace and be embraced by one of the sources of stability throughout all of this. I hope to be a college student, whatever that might look like during a pandemic; I hope to be a person that is not bogged down by loss. I hope to be free. 

And as I pack up my belongings for my move-in date, I choose to leave behind those burdening feelings of grief. I’ve traded familiarity (for all its advantages and disadvantages) for a new room. One that is unmarked by the stain of loss and awaits new life.