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Lost my dad in October. Feeling very scared to go back to college, scared to move on

Posts: 2
Joined: Dec 2013

Hello everyone. My name is Christine and I'm 20 years old and new to the website. I've been reading the discussion boards on this website over the last few days and have been incredibly moved and encouraged by the stories and kindness I've seen here. I'm looking forward to hearing from you.


My dad passed away from liver cancer on October 1st of this year. He was diagnosed four and a half years ago when I had just finished 10th grade. He had been having stomach pains and when they found the tumor, it was technically stage 4 and completely wrapped around his liver in a way that made it inoperable. However, because it was a rare and very slow-growing kind of cancer they gave him five years, maybe more, to live. Once he started drug chemotherapy, most of his struggles came from side affects (swollen feet, diarrhea, etc.) as opposed to the actual cancer.


High school was very hard because of it. My dad didn't know how to talk about his cancer at all (something that I blamed him for at the time but which I've since made peace with). The result, though, was that nobody in my family EVER talked about it. I tried to bring it up with my sister, who was four years older than me and already in college. She denied it at every possible turn, saying that some of the people on the clinical trials that had first developed the chemo my dad was on had lived for ten years or longer. She told me not to worry. This became increasingly frustrating for me, especially as my dad started doing worse. He also isolated himself more and more and his marriage to my mom became horrible. She would try to talk to him and he would sit there in silence, occasionally offering a sneering remark or showing a cold-shoulder, sometimes bursting into rages and screaming and cursing at her. My sister would only come home at Christmas break, and my mom and dad would both put on a good show for her, acting warm and cheery and upbeat. My sister would then tell me that my dad seemed to be doing fine, and that I was taking it too seriously. She was sure my mom and dad really loved each other. She was sure he would be fine. She was sure we would all be fine. I wasn't sure of any of it.


I wanted us to talk about it. I wanted us to plan for the future as if he really only DID have five years left. I wanted my sister to come home. I wanted us to go to support groups. I didn't want us to pretend everything was fine, to not talk to each other, to slowly watch as my parent's marriage got worse.


I felt confused and constantly guilty. Every time I tried to bring up cancer, the conversation ended in under two minutes. I truly believed that I was making it into way too big a deal and I was feeling upset on purpose to attract attention - especially because on the outside, he wasn't doing THAT badly. His symptoms were managable. At least that's what he said and that's how it seemed. For the first two years I hardly told any of my friends about it out of fear that they would think I was trying to get pity. Most of them didn't understand at all and either said nothing, or apologized for being a horrible friend and never knowing what to say. For a while, I simply stopped telling them about it because I felt guilty for making THEM feel guilty. It was a stupid cycle.

I've always been an extremely conscientious student, and when I began to not care about my classes I was racked with guilt and embarrassment. The one time I decided to tell a teacher about it, simply because I felt bad that I wasn't doing well in her class, she accused me of lying in order to get a better grade. The one time I tried to tell my dad that his cancer was scaring me and making me not care about school, he became angry and told me to stop making it into a big deal. I'll never forget what he said - "You're not some kid living in the slums who has to work three jobs because their dad is so sick he can't put food on the table." In retrospect, I understand that I had insulted his pride - he hated the idea that cancer was preventing him from living a normal life and caring for his family. And it was true that he was still working and living an active life. But i felt TERRIBLE afterwards. I felt like I had no right to be feeling worried and stressed, that I was making it all up.


I ended up going to college in New York City, 3,000 miles away from my home. The first few months weren't too bad - what I hated the most was that my dad wouldn't always tell me how he was doing until weeks later, and I wasn't there living with him so I couldn't see how things were for myself. But we did okay, and he seemed pretty stable. Then about halfway through my freshman year something inside of me shifted. I was home for winter break and I suddenly couldn't bear the idea of going back to college. Nothing medically had happened to him, but some part of me just knew that we were running out of time. I felt like I was betraying my dad, leaving him to die while I went off and ran around in New York having fun. The idea of going back made me feel so guilty. All of my friends, 18 or 19, were chatting excitedly about getting internships for the summer all over the country and were applying for summer jobs. The idea of not being at home for the summer made me feel physically sick. On the morning my parents drove me to the airport, my mom asked me where I wanted to work over the summer and I broke down sobbing. I told them I couldn't bear the idea of being away from them over the summer and they agreed that I could come home.

And so I did. I finished spring semester and came home for the summer in mid-May. Late June, the side effects from his chemo started to become overwhelming. He had constant nausea and diarrhea. His doctors told him in July we were going to take a two week break and then start him on a different chemo drug. In the two week break, his health plummeted dramatically and he was never able to get back on chemo. August was a horrible, agonizing month of uncertainty, his doctors still trying to get his health back up. Then came his trip to the hospital and to two nursing homes. I made the decision, against my parents initial wishes, to take a leave of absence from college. By September, the decision was made to put him on hospice. He died a month later on October 1.

Taking a semester off of college was the best decision I could have made. I am so grateful for the time I had with my dad and with my mom and sister afterwards. We did three funeral services for him - one in Colorado, where his family is from, one in my hometown, and one in New Jersey where he went to school and where we lived until I was 9 yeas old. The services meant a lot of planning and traveling, such that we finally got home, finished with them all, in early December. It's been a whirlwind of blankness and exhaustion. I hardly even noticed that Christmas came and went.

Now, I'm feeling incredibly worried about going back to college in New York for spring semester. I've been told that most people don't even really start to feel grief strongly until about 4 months afterwards - which will be exactly when I go back. I haven't really even felt anything yet, except for shock and numbness. I feel like I don't understand people my own age. I haven't been doing very much at all this fall, just reading and sleeping and walking, and some of my friends in college, filled with all the energy and excitement of youth and bustling about with multiple boyfriends, homework, and jobs, have made comments about how different our lives are and how lucky I am that I get to just hang out. I don't know how it's going to be around them - I have never cared less about the idea of a boyfriend or school or anything that people my age obsess about. I'm used to feeling ambition and I've always loved school - but now, I feel completely ambitionless. I don't want to work or do school or anything, and the very fact that I don't makes me feel incredibly guilty. I'm in my 20s and I'm SUPPOSED to be filled with drive and excitement, but instead everything just seems empty.

I feel a lot younger and older than my friends at the same time. Younger, in that they all desperately WANTED to leave the nest and wanted to leave home and become independent adults. I've never wanted that. It's harder to leave the nest when there's a chance it might not be there when you get back. Older, because the things they text me about and talk about seem so mind-numbingly trivial. The first text I got from my best friend at college was a month after my dad had died, ranting about how a guy she liked wouldn't hook up with her. I couldn't make myself care. It makes me feel embarrassed, though. All of my friends can't wait to be adults and I feel terrified about leaving my mom. I feel like I'll be abandoning her, just like I felt like I was abandoning my dad before. I know she doesn't have cancer, she's healthy and not in any danger, I know it's irrational, but I feel terrified of leaving her. This feels especially embarrassing when all my friends are talking about all the jobs they can't wait to get, all the apartments they're going to live in, all the trips they can't wait to take. I just want to be with my mom and sister.

I'm wondering if anyone has any advice on how to make the semester a little easier. I'm definitely going to go back, I have to because of financial things and part of me really wants to - it's been very lonely being in my hometown by myself this fall, with all of my friends off at school. I want to be with people again. But I don't know how to leave home now that my dad isn't here. My sister keeps talking about how she can't wait to go back to normal life, how she can't wait to go back to grad school and stop moping aorund. My mom keeps talking about how she's going to be fine and is planning all these trips for the coming year. I can't bear the idea of moving forward the way they keep talking about doing. I feel like I barely understand what happened.


Any comments or advice are much appreciated. Thank you.

mrs_blkjak's picture
Posts: 103
Joined: Apr 2013

Balancing hope and reality is such a hard thing to do. I feel for your entire family. I am sorry that you had no one to help you through these past four and a half years. It sounds like you were in a more realistic place and had no one to talk to about that. First of all, I am glad you are going back to school. I think your dad would be happy that you are moving on with your life. I am sure it is difficult to leave your mom, but she will be okay. That doesn't mean that this isn't going to be hard for her, but I am sure she knows that she needs to figure out what to do next with her life. When you get back to school, check if there are counselors there that can help you with your grief. Most colleges have counselors that are free for students. 

I understand feeling like you don't fit in as well with your friends after all you've been through. My life circumstances are different - I am 42, the mother of two kids (10 and 13) and my husband was diagnosed 9 1/2 months ago with incurable kidney cancer. I find that my friends problems are so different than mine. I also find, though, that being around people living "normal" lives allows me to focus on the positives and the parts of my life that are normal. We try very hard to focus every day on living. I hope that you are able to do that and to find that common bond with friends your age. 

As far as when your grief will "really" hit, it really is different with everyone. Maybe 4 months is a "norm" for some, but not all. Remember, you have been grieving for 4 1/2 years. The totality didn't hit until your father's death, but you have been grieving a long time. Be kind to yourself, don't "wait" for the time that its "supposed" to get worse....just deal with the emotions as they come. You have lost so many things that you thought you had to look forward to - your dad being at your college graduation, holidays, family traditions, holding your children one day. The emotions will come in waves for a long time. Don't anticipate, just deal with them as they come. Find someone to talk to who will listen to you....it sounds like that is a huge piece that has been missing for you throughout your dad's illness.

I wish you all the best and hope that you find going back to school to be better than you anticipated!

Posts: 2
Joined: Dec 2013

Thank you so much for these incredibly understanding words. They really made me feel a lot better tonight.

Your point about having normal moments with friends was a really good one - because you're definitely right, all the normal things, everything from hanging out with friends to taking out the trash to getting frustrated about homework don't just go away. They're so present and side by side with pills and blood tests that I, at least, have realized how much cancer and death ARE parts of life, intertwined with everything else instead of being something separate or supernatural or alien. And I liked how you said "the parts of my life" that are normal - because you're right, there are parts that are the same, and I'm thinking now that not every friend group or individual friend is able to give me/understand EVERY part of my life.

I very much appreciated what you said: "Don't anticipate, just deal with them as they come." That seems like it will be applicable to a lot of things. I will definitely keep that in mind.


Thank you so much for your kind words. I'm sending love to your family and your kids.

sharpy102's picture
Posts: 371
Joined: Apr 2009

@Christine: I am not saying I completely understand you, that would be a lie. But I can somewhat understand you. I was going to turn 12 in December when I lost my Mom in July of that summer. My dad has passed away since then along with my brother back when I was youger (car crash). So Mom basically meant the world to me, th eonly shelter I could have. And although it wasn't college that I had to go back to, but I had to go back to school that September. I basically went into a spiral downhill and fell into depression and didn't care about anything or anyone. I almost got kicked out of school. Detention followed detention but I did not care. I hated the whole world. I am telling you all this to let you know that it won't be easy for you to go back to school. Still today, many people say I am a lot more mature than kids at my age (I'm now 16). Life has taught me many things, and one thing that will help you keep moving in your difficult days (or at least it helped me) is that your dad NEVER wants to see you collapse!!! He wants to see you happy. He wants his daughter to becomes successful. Finish school, get that degree, get their career in gears, fall madly in love, get married, and later on have wonderful kids. These were the toughts that made me stand up and get up from my depression. I realized one day that my Mom must be feeling so guilty and miserable for causing such a pain with her departure. And I felt terrible for making her feel sad and bad. I cannot be selfish and want her back when she was suffering, and was in pain. So all I can do is to make her happy! I am living because of her, and I'm trying to do all the good things, not for myself, but for her. To make her happy! Think about your dad! Show him how great you can be, and how great you will be! That'll make him more proud than anything ever on this Planet!

All the best to you!

grandmafay's picture
Posts: 1639
Joined: Aug 2009

I don't know what I can say that hasn't already been said by the previous writer, but I just wanted you to know that I'm here. Your father's illness and death was very hard for all of you. I have no words of wisdom. I wish I did, but each of us must find our own way to grieve and move forward. Anger and fear can be a part of the grief process. Your life has been turned upside down. This is not what you planned. It's not fair, either, but as I often told my sons when they were growing up, life isn't fair. Neither is death. Your mother and sister will learn to deal with their own grief In their way. Believe your mother when she tells you that she will be ok. It won't be easy, but we do learn to cope. Hang in there. Fay

Posts: 21
Joined: Jul 2012

Hey. I'm 20 too and I'm about to lose my mom. I'm on winter break right now and classes start in a few days. Luckily I only go to college twenty-five minutes away from my house, so I'll be able to drive home after class to be with my mom when she passes. I understand where you're coming from about feeling like you can't relate to people your age. At our not many people go through losing a parent. I can also understand how you don't want to leave your mom.


For me personally, I think school is going to be the perfect distraction after my mom passes. The hardest part about it is going to be leaving my dad at home by himself. Our house is going to be so empty and that makes me really sad. 

As far as going back, I suggest you just go with "part of me really wants to". A few days ago someone told me that "life is for the living". This really resonated with me. I know that after my mom passes many things are going to change, but I know that my mom wouldn't want my life to stop because she died. I don't know if that helps you at all, but for some reason that has helped me not freak out when thinking of the future. And I know things must be easier with me just being a short car ride away from my dad, but for you, maybe you should just put college into a different perspective. It is only 4 years long, 8 semesters. Being 20 years old I guess you're a sophomore? Being all the way in New York is definitely hard, but it doesn't have to be perminent. You only have X-amount of semester left of college and I say you take advantage of that. It is probably safe to say that your dad would agree, right?


It's definitely interesting and weird dealing with something like this because it really shows you what is important and what isn't. I think people like us who have lost/ are losing a parent at an early age have the potential to grow up a lot faster than the typical 20 year-old. Many people in my life have told me to seek out some sort of couseling at school. After briefly researching I found out that there was a group on my campus specifically for students who have dealt with losing a parent. Maybe you should look into this?


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