In the months leading up to my move to New Jersey, my family was constantly anxious that I would be so far away. In the summer I had before leaving home, there were always questions of “what if something happens, and we can’t get to her?” or “what if she needs us and can’t get back home?” I told my family that everything would be fine. I was just a flight away, and if I truly needed to get home, I would.
It’s very easy to plan when you have no actual need to do so. But, when your dad tells you at 3:20 p.m. the day before your flight back to school after fall break that your grandfather has passed away, those plans have a way of falling apart. My dad’s words couldn’t be unsaid. I no longer lived in a world where I had all of my grandparents, and the understanding that I could never have another conversation with my grandfather weighed me down until all I could do was sob while my boyfriend held me.
I didn’t know what to do, so the next day, I got on my flight and returned to campus, even though it was the last thing I wanted to do. Sitting alone in a dorm, grieving someone that I’d known my whole life, I thought that I had discovered a new level of loneliness. While I knew that my family was just a call away, support via phone versus being at home with them were two different experiences. In my dorm, I was alone with my thoughts, grief, and guilt. At home, I would have had my parents and siblings to support me, but life just doesn’t work out like that sometimes.
That’s the thing about grief. No one prepares you for it. The only way to prepare for it is to experience it, and each time you do, it feels like a different weight, a different numbness and pain. No one prepared me for the tears that would start on my walks to class, or in the shower, or while doing homework. No one prepared me for the empty feeling that comes with the knowledge that the next time I visit home, I’ll be visiting a grave.
While my family has done their best to be there for me, they get a sense of closure at home that I lose here. They got to attend his funeral. They got to say goodbye. I’m left here, praying that the sadness and numbness will go away soon, praying that reality will set in and that I can accept it, but also hoping that it never does. If it doesn’t set in, it isn’t real, and I don’t have to accept that I lost someone that had been in my life forever.
The only version of grief I previously knew of came from comforting my dad after the loss of his uncle and comforting my brother after the loss of a close cousin. While I was sad and in mourning, there’s something fundamentally different about losing a grandparent. There’s something fundamentally different about grieving that loss on a college campus and having to call family instead of being with them as you cry. Princeton, as much as I've loved it here, is not the place I needed to be at that moment.
Despite my desire to go home and be with my family, my friends here have been amazing at preventing me from wallowing in grief. Going out for dinner or just studying in someone else’s dorm have been a saving grace in the past few days. Despite the loneliness of grief, I still know that I’m not alone.
That’s the thing about grief. You don’t know how to prepare for it. You don’t know how to deal with it. All you can do is survive it.
Mackenzie Hollingsworth is a contributing writer for The Prospect from Middlesboro, Kentucky. She is a member of the Class of 2026 and can be reached at email@example.com.