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Authentic Eagles: Olivia Hussey on Loss

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our true selves. Embracing our individuality can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of being one’s authentic self at BC. We hope that readers are inspired to have conversations and reflections of their own, working toward being more authentic individuals.

Olivia Hussey, MCAS ‘17

I’m a planner. I love calendars, goal setting, and knowing what’s coming next. When I came to BC, I had “the plan” for a perfect college experience: I would meet a great group of friends, get involved in clubs, excel in my classes, and immerse myself in the culture. There it was—my roadmap to happiness. My freshman year was challenging yet rewarding: I made friends, liked my classes, and quickly joined multiple clubs. So far, so good.

At the end of freshman year, however, something happened that I had never planned for. On a late afternoon in May 2014, I learned that my dad had been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer called mucosal melanoma. He said he was optimistic, he would get the best possible treatment, and he would “beat it.”

You have to know a little bit about my dad. He was relatively young and healthy. He loved his life, his family, and his work. He was filled with ideas and energy, and he made things happen. He was an expert sailor and a terrible dancer. When I was little, I would wait by the door for him to come in at the end of the day. He was my role model and my rock.

In an instant, my perception of the world changed. What had seemed so solid and so constant had been cut loose. None of my plans seemed certain anymore.

My new world included Mass General hospital rooms, emergency surgeries, chemo, radiation, immunotherapy, and fear of what was ahead. At BC, I tried hard to continue with “the plan.” I formed deep relationships, declared my history major, and served as UGBC vice president. I also was filled with anxiety, sleepless nights, and the constant dread of receiving a bad phone call from home.

As things progressed, I spent as much time as possible with my dad. He remained positive, continuing to work and read extensively. He wrote a blog called, “Beating It.”  He challenged my siblings and me in conversation and cribbage games. He and my mom were strong and inseparable.  We sailed and took beach walks. We watched Jeopardy, and we laughed a lot. Part of me believed that we might go on like this forever.

On June 13, 2016, two years after his diagnosis, my dad passed away. It was the week before my 21st birthday, the summer before my senior year.

I spent the summer at home with my mom, sifting through the wreckage of our loss. We went through the motions of normalcy, but nothing was normal. I was in survival mode, just trying to get through each day. A hole had been blown into our lives, and everything had changed.

Come September, I returned to campus, and quickly learned that BC students don’t talk about loss. All around me was lively chatter about summer adventures, football tailgates, and small talk of classes. Few mentioned my loss or asked me anything about it. I was shocked. A good friend told me that she didn’t mention my dad because she didn’t want to remind me of him and make me sad. While incredibly well-intentioned, what she—and many others—didn’t understand was that my dad is always on my mind.

One of the worst parts of my grief is how isolating it can be. It’s the elephant in the room that no one talks about, yet everyone, including me, is aware of. Few know what to say, so they often say nothing. From talking to others who have experienced loss, they feel the same way: being asked about the loss, being able to share memories, or simply being able to say how awful it feels means so much more than anyone realizes.

I felt isolated and disconnected from the idealized, perfect senior year of my plan. On the outside, my life looked fine, if not idyllic. I got up in the morning, participated in class, ran meetings, and drank cheap beer at MAs on the weekends, normally with a smile plastered on my face. On the inside, I struggled to simply stay afloat. Sleepless nights, anxiety, and hidden tears became my norm. Some days I feared it would never get better. I still have that fear.

A couple of months ago on a particularly low day, I was talking to a mentor about my dad. She surprised me by asking what I was grateful for. I felt like laughing—my dad is dead. He won’t see me receive my diploma at graduation, he won’t walk me down the aisle, and he won’t play with his grandchildren. Why would I be grateful?

I dismissed the comment and continued to be angry at the world. But in the following days and weeks, the question kept coming back to me. One night when I couldn’t sleep, I started to think hard about her question. I began a mental list:  My friends who continuously pick me up. My mom. My sister and brother. All the laughs and conversations I got to have with my dad. The people who believe in me when I don’t believe in myself.

To my surprise, the list grew rapidly, and I realized how many amazing people and things I have in my life, but hadn’t been focusing on. No, gratitude doesn’t make losing my dad better, but learning to see the light and love in others is a small step forward.

To be honest, I am still in the midst of all this, still trying to figure it out.  I am a different person than when I arrived four years ago with my plan for the perfect college experience. Yes, I did make amazing friends. I found great mentors, and joined clubs that gave me life. And I was privileged to be involved in the BC community. I am grateful for all of that. However, my time at BC cannot be tied up into a neat, clean bow. Much of this experience unfolded under the cloud of losing my dad, and that changed everything.

Despite my best Type-A attempts, I now know that we can’t predict where life will take us. If we hold too tight to “the plan,” we will go down with it when stuff happens that is out of our control.  Life is messy. We have to adapt. We can adapt.

I also know that contrary to what one might think walking around our beautiful, “happy” campus, there are many others at BC who have experienced loss. It could be a death in the family, a break-up, broken friendship, or failed dream. Many have felt, or will feel, that gut-wrenching pain of devastation or loneliness.

Can anything make it better? Last fall, I would have said no, nothing can help. Today, I know a few simple things can make a difference:

  1. If you have a friend who has experienced loss, don’t be afraid to mention it. Let them know that you care about them. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Don’t worry that you will make them “feel worse.” They already feel worse. Your mentioning it will help them to feel better, because they will feel less alone.
  2. If you are in the midst of a loss, try not be afraid of the darkness you are feeling. Eventually the sky will brighten. While almost imperceptible at first, slowly, you will begin to see a tiny ray of light. More will come, even when you are absolutely convinced it won’t. There is no calendar, no end date, no plan. You just have to let things unfold.
  3. Find someone to talk to. Not everyone will know how to listen. But there are people who will, and it is important to find them as soon as possible. Keeping it all inside or “toughing it out” doesn’t work very well—trust me, I’ve tried.

In my dad’s blog, he described his philosophy of life: “Although not like the tidal clockwork, our lives have rhythms of ups and downs. When we are at our internal high tide of peace and stillness, all seems good with the world. But our human condition means these moments don’t last forever, just as the moon inevitably pulls the waters out of the rivers and bays… I love high tides in our marsh, but the rhythms and change is what makes life exciting. And I have come to so appreciate the lessons and gifts of low tide, where life is fully shared and made visible.”

As I look towards graduation, I am grateful for my experience at BC. Although still a planner, I’m trying to loosen the reins a bit to absorb the changes and events that I can’t predict or control. I know that more low tides lay ahead.

 My dad would be happy to know—and maybe even surprised—that I am trying to take his advice “to appreciate the lessons and gifts of low tide, where life is fully shared and made visible.” On graduation day, and every day thereafter, I will be thinking of my dad with gratitude. I hope he knows that.

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