Graduations are time for reflection, pride, and accomplishment. You reminisce about your experiences submerged in the academic world, fight back tears of joy, and look ahead to a hopeful future. It is a time for encouragement. It is a time for high fives and handshakes.
When I graduated high school, something was missing. I suppose I should say someone. I watched as my classmates fled to their families and hugged their brothers and sisters. I watched from the sidelines as rivalries between siblings temporarily syndicated and even subsided. I longed for my big brother to put his arms around me and tell me that he was proud of me and that I was the coolest little sister in the world.
Graduating high school ignited a full collapse. I would assume most people deal with death in their own way, gradually, a few months or years at a time. I wouldn't know. I never did. At the age of ten, accepting the death of my brother wasn't supposed to be on my list of things to do. Grief was never meant to sit next to tasks such as building a tree fort and practicing my multiplication tables. It was a concept I had not yet been taught. I observed my father at my brother's funeral, as he stood stoic with his sunglasses pulled over his eyes in the church where my brother's service was held, and for the next eight years, I mimicked that moment. In my mind, that was the way it was supposed to be.
Turns out, mimicking stoicism in general isn't necessarily healthy, especially when it's somebody else's. At eighteen, instead of momentarily feeling a pang of sadness and moving on, I became angry, resentful, and depressed. Graduating high school and acknowledging that my brother was not there to watch me receive my diploma caused me to deal with his death for the first time in eight years, and initially, I did not handle it well. After a few months, my mother noticed my anger, unhappiness, and even that I'd lost weight. She suggested I seek help and see a therapist. In my mind, therapists were for crazy people. I was too stubborn to admit that I needed to speak with somebody about my feelings, but I also knew deep down that I couldn't keep it all inside. I spent an afternoon googling therapists in the area, and found one that seemed to coincide with what I was looking for: Somebody to listen. I didn't want somebody to tell me that I needed medication, I didn't want somebody to patronize me or make me feel like I was different, I just wanted somebody to listen and to understand.
My therapist was amazing. After the first class, I walked away feeling like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. She told me that I didn't have to sign up for any number of sessions, and we could stop whenever I felt comfortable. It was the first time in the three months since graduating high school that I'd been able to really breathe and feel my lungs expanding. I no longer felt bogged down with guilt and frustration, and I even started making time to go to my brother's grave and talk to him. I know that might sound insane, but spending 10 minutes every few days at his grave and talking out loud to him made me feel more connected to my cause. With each session I felt more and more understood, and I left a more complete person. I went to therapy for six weeks, and one day I woke up and knew that it would be my last class. I had finally made it out of the abyss.
Four years later, I graduated college. I was truly proud of the person I had become, not necessarily for graduating, but for coming to peace with his death and allowing myself to still feel connected to his spirit. College graduation was truly a happy day. To this day, whenever I'm passing by his grave, I stop in for a few minutes. It no longer feels like something in my life is missing. It feels like I experienced life with an incredible person for ten years, and even though I had to say goodbye, he lives on through me every day.
I didn't just graduate college for myself; I graduated for the both of us.