Learning to process my grief during frosh week

Two life-changing events taught me the importance of community

Matt and a friend during Frosh Week.
Photo: 

When my mother walked into my room with tears in her eyes as my brother and I watched tennis, I assumed it was about her son’s first year at university.

I knew seeing her first child go to university wasn’t going to be easy for her. I asked if everything was okay. She sat on a wicker laundry hamper and looked at her phone.

“Jeff died yesterday.”

Jeff—or as I called him, Mr. Mann—was my middle school gym teacher. Our friendship was something I never anticipated. Plenty of kids visit their schools post-graduation, but to incessantly text while watching a Jays’ game was a different kind of student-teacher friendship.

There was a painful pause. My heart sank as my eyes welled up.

“How?” I said, trying to slow my breathing. 

She said she didn’t know and “they just found him.”

A million questions swirled through my mind, each one leaving me more confused than the last. How? We’d texted just a few days earlier:“I’d love to see you before you head to the alma mater!” he wrote. 

Of course, my mind raced to the unanswerable question: why?

But instead of asking anything else, I just looked at my mom and cried.

Jeff’s motto was “all in, all the time,” which I preached religiously during and after my time as his student. After two years as his student and two more spent assisting him with various teams he coached, I knew he’d be in my inner circle for a long time. 

He was one of my few confidants. Over our three-hour dinners and car rides home from competitions, he’d walk me through an upcoming first date and I’d give him an ear to yell at after a crushing loss. As much as my friends prodded me for hanging out with an ex-gym teacher, we appreciated one another. Each time we saw each other we’d end up doubled over with laughter, soon finding ourselves locked in deep conversation minutes later. 

It was different, but neither of us cared.

The night I got the news was painfully long. I called my friends, leaning on them to help understand what had happened. Each time I hung up, a new sense of loss hit me. Spring evenings catching up on the past few months: gone. Trading jabs about sports: never again. 

The future plans we’d made disappeared right in front of my eyes. I felt a sudden wave of guilt and regret looking at old texts about our plans to go to a sports game.

Unpacking each memory took months, but that night felt like I was unraveling a lifetime’s worth of memories.

Naturally, the last thing on my mind that night was how I’d move into my Queen’s residence the next day.

When I was supposed to be looking towards the future, I felt as though I spent frosh week looking into the past. Those first six days on campus were sensory overload—the additional gut-punch of leaving home for the first time rendered the frosh events, meet-ups with high school friends and parties into little more than a blur. 

When I was supposed to be looking towards the future, I felt as though I spent frosh week looking into the past.

On the Saturday of Frosh Week, I went to Jeff’s funeral. At the end of the service, my best friend and I stood in front of Jeff’s closed coffin, hugged each other, and sobbed into one another’s shoulders. In that moment of sadness, I’d never felt more safe. 

Naturally, going back to Kingston was the last thing I wanted to do after such an emotionally draining day. Nonetheless, I hopped on the evening train and officially settled into residence.

In the days and weeks that followed, the insanity of frosh week took a measured step back and everyday university life showed its face for the first time. I made some new friends and we all began to ask ourselves the same questions each crop of first years ask themselves. 

Why are my marks so much worse? Is this the right tin machine to put my dirty clothes in? How can a gym be that massive?

Most notably, the absence of my parents became more apparent. During those first weeks, I felt like the only one who’d moved away for the first time. I excused my loneliness as a symptom of grief—as though my homesickness and sense that independence just wasn’t for me was a unique experience for a first-year student.

As the smaller, daily questions were answered, my friends started to talk about how we were feeling as we finally shed our false sense of confidence and allowed ourselves to share our problems with one another. I slowly began to see that yes, my situation was unique, but I was the furthest thing from alone in my struggle to find my feet in Kingston.

Nonetheless, homesickness was a common theme among my friends. Some of them ached after seeing their high school sweethearts move on at Thanksgiving, and others found the higher academic expectations deeply trying. 

It was in these moments that I felt less alone—it was as if someone was finally patting me on the shoulder and saying, “We’re in this together.” 

The struggles—and the eventual highs as we adjusted to our new environment—brought us closer together and began to make Kingston feel like a second home.

As I slowly continued to digest Jeff’s death—the waves of loss becoming less frequent as time went on—it struck me that my first-year wouldn’t be defined by the hectic rush of its earliest days. I would most remember every moment afterwards—the ones spent in someone’s room watching a movie, arguing about sports or talking to the don after your fourth noise complaint. 

At the start of first year, most people give off a feeling of contentment where they seem to handle every plight of independence in stride. As I later found out, hardly anyone was as put together as I had predicted. 

Once we’d admitted this to each other, we were able to lift each other up—and it’s something I’ll never forget.

Suddenly, by the end of first semester, the same place that had swept the rug from under me was carefully placing it right back under my feet.

My first months at Queen’s showed me what it was like to lose every sense of connection, and build yourself back up from nothing. Despite the homesickness and tragedy I still find myself at a loss for words two years later. 

First year provided me with a group of people with whom I shared common ground and, now, whom I consider family.

We all came to Queen’s lost and confused, which is exactly what helped us find our way to each other. Going from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs forced me to recognize what friendship was worth and made me nurture those connections more than I ever have. 

First year is never an easy year, but I encourage everyone to stay on the lookout for their new Queen’s family; the people you pass in the stairway on move-in day may be the people that hold your hand in your hardest moments this year.

I desperately wish that night before Frosh Week never happened. But the connections I made and difficulties I shared with a supportive group of similarly scrambling people taught me that no one ever has to feel alone—no matter the size of their struggle.

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