As I’ve journeyed through my university experience over the past three years, I’ve often wondered about my future self – “where will I be?”, “what will I be doing?”, and “how will my future self look back at my college experience?” have been some of the questions that have at times concerned my time at Brown. Many students see university as a type of rite of passage towards adulthood. For me, it has served to facilitate the very personal journey of self-discovery while it has also become unequivocally associated with my mother’s death.
Perhaps part of the process of reaching emotional maturity is the realisation that growing up is about making sense of one’s past, as opposed to solely focusing on coming to terms with the unpredictability of one’s future. More concretely, however, the process of growing up has been tied with the physical manifestation of independence, including the physical act of moving out of one’s parents’ home and not living full time with your parents anymore. Moving into on-campus housing at an overseas university was one such transition for me.
This step made me particularly aware of the serious responsibility of having to schedule my days and having to organise and set my priorities, as, for the first time in my life, I had complete control over how I spent my days – and thus, I also had complete responsibility over myself. This was my first taste of functional independence, where my own needs had to be taken care of solely by me, because I didn’t have my parents to wake me up in case I overslept in the morning, or to cook me dinner when I got back from class.
The concept of my place of origin has always been obscure to me. When I left home to attend university in the US, I began to reflect even more on my complicated sense of origin. I never connected to my parents’ home country the way they did because I was born in another continent and subsequently moved to an even farther one. Before coming to the States, my home was in Cape Town, South Africa, as this was where I had spent the more formative half of my life. The question of where I feel most at home is now more complicated since my father decided to relocate back to Japan following my mother’s death, while my brother stayed on in South Africa to finish his tertiary studies there – all the while, I have remained in the US to complete my studies here.
A logical question following the realisation that South Africa is not where I “go home” to for my breaks anymore, is the question “where is my home now?”. There is not an actual answer for me. While I would still consider my home to be Cape Town, I don’t have a physical home there to return to, and while I visited my father in Japan last winter break, how could I call a country in which I’ve never lived and whose language is not my native language my home? Another question to ask is whether my sense of belonging necessarily has to be tied to a physical location somewhere in the world. Is it a necessary part of my identity to know exactly where I come from, or is this preoccupation with deciphering my “home” perhaps more to do with feeling lost and lacking a sense of security that is associated with having a specific place of origin? Perhaps grieving away from home is more about the physical distance between me and my family, as opposed to grieving away from a specific place. Perhaps, grief for me also has to do with coming to terms with my new family – a smaller, scattered family.
In light of this, growing up and grieving away from home do not necessitate an actual, physical home. The feeling of self-dependence is achieved by distance from your family, just as grieving away from home is more about grieving away from the rest of your family. As I’ve recently thought back on the past year, I have realised that grief has become closely tied with my personal growth. For me, it has become part of the process towards independence, just as attending an overseas university has played a big role in developing my confidence and adaptability. There is, of course, a significant difference: I did not choose to grieve, while I did choose to relocate overseas.
I think of grief as in part being a process towards emotional independence, because this past year I realised that one of the most significant adjustments I had to make concerned me dealing with the loss of my mother’s emotional support. I grew up with a mother who encouraged my academic and extra-curricular endeavours, and who did everything in her power to support me. I grew up with the nurturing and caring of a mother who absolutely believed in my abilities to excel, and, when faced with her death, I was also faced with the loss of this support. A major part of grief for me has been the process of accepting the loss of everything that my mother meant to me. Needless to say, I am still grappling with the significance of this loss. I am also still grappling with the need for a huge increase in self-dependence for coping with stress.
The death of my mother came with the sad realisation that I had taken my parents’ continued presence and support for granted. Yet, death should be something that everyone is aware of even as they are starting to set foot in the unpredictable path of their winding life, as is usually the case with college students. I used to think that a topic as depressing as death was something that wouldn’t concern me at any point in the soon and foreseeable future, but, clearly, I was wrong. While grief has played an unexpected and difficult part in my college experience, it has also allowed me to value the significance of this loss for what it has taught me about growing up: that while it is important to look to the future and plan ahead, it is also important to keep perspective, and to value the people I care about while I still can.