How I tried to find meaning in the death of my college classmate
I was in shock when I received the news — so shocked that my emotions were unable to catch up with the constant stream of time passing by, until 3 hours later. I ran and re-ran the news in my brain, chewing on it, mulling over it, trying and attempting to find a way, a means to grasp and deal with the news that had just been dropped in my lap.
On a quiet and cool Sunday morning, my classmate and friend from undergrad had died.
The news spread fairly quickly amongst the university community I was once a part of. I went to a small university with just about 1,000 students depending on the time in which you attended — a place where each and every student knew of one another. We knew the organizations we each were involved in, who was dating who at what time, et cetera. As the news spread virally, each member of the university community felt the same emotional reverberations from his death.
But I suppose I should take a few steps back.
His name was Ryan, and he was one year younger than me. He was studying to be a science teacher and had a smile that could flip any person’s worst day 180 degrees. Ryan was the person who everyone knew, by name or by facial recognition, at least. He was a hard person to ignore with his constant, ever-present, warm smile stretched across his face. He was a leader on campus, and always went out of his way to aid anyone needing any sort of help or assistance. He was quirky enough and comical enough to dance like a fool with me at a freshman orientation, and while Ryan and I were by no means the best of friends, Ryan was a school friend I had expected to always just be around.
To his core, Ryan was one of the most genuine, kind, and endearing person many of us had ever met, and now he’s gone.
In my life, I had never had anyone remotely close to me die; I didn’t even know where to begin in terms of grieving.
Should I hold this, all of these emotions in? Or should I just cry it out? Who do I reach out to? And why should I be responsible for sharing this horrible, tragic news with others, causing them to feel just as out of sorts as I do?
I wasn’t sure which option was the best route; so, I considered and acted on all four.
Finally, in the traditional millennial way of showing empathy, I shared the obituary online along with the following message: “This is beyond my words and unfathomable. Rest well, Ryan. You will always be remembered, cherished, and loved.
Each word was true: I couldn’t believe he was gone, and I would never forget the kind, funny, and lovable person Ryan was.
But in my own introspection and need to discover something larger from this tragedy, a grander meaning that would make this heartbreak have at least some bleak silver lining, I began to ask myself the following questions:
What will my peers and the people that surround me remember me as? What legacy will I leave behind in this world?
This was not an uncommon notion for me to grapple with. In fact, I had written an article in high school for the local, county-wide newspaper trying to come to terms with the legacy I intended to leave the world.
Then, at the oh-so ripe age of 17, I was consumed with the idea of being voted “Best Dressed” and/or “Nicest Car” in my senior yearbook, so consumed that I advocated others to vote for me in those specific categories. My campaigning ultimately failed and earned me only the second place finishing spot in “Best Dressed” and “Nicest Car,” but these efforts demonstrated to me something so much more important and larger than materialistic, surface level accolades. While I weaseled around soliciting votes, my classmates were in fact voting for me, but not in the category I had been hoping for; instead, they were voting me “Nicest” in the class.
I was astounded — and embarrassed. How could I have been so wrapped up in my own self-interests, when people valued me for not being that way?
It was then I decided that I wanted to be the person who my high school mates thought I was. I didn’t want to let them down or have them think that their voting had been done in vain. At that time, I thought my pondering on my legacy had been completed.
But as I now grieved, that sentiment seemed so far off from being monumental and eternal — arguably two of the most important elements of a legacy.
Being nice is important — that’s an opinion everyone could, should, and would get behind, yes, but…shouldn’t there be something more?
Shouldn’t I want to leave more behind? Shouldn’t I want to have made a larger, higher impact on the world, or at least in the small community that I live in?
Because I did not know the answers to any of the prior questions, I asked three of my law school friends the following: if I were to die tomorrow, what would you remember me for?
Now, I am an incredibly awkward person: I hate talking about myself, and I hate to receive compliments — mostly because I am not good at either; so, as it could be assumed, I loathed the activity that I was about to endure. I knew it was going to be painful, and, frankly, I feared that the answers I would receive would initiate more anxiety in my journey of finding a higher purpose and meaning to this time-derived thing we call life.
Once my friends’ shock caused by my slightly morbid question subsided, I was more than relieved when they responded as they did.
“You radiate positivity.”
“You strive for what you want…[and] you don’t give in to mob mentality.”
“You can have the rug pulled out from under you and make it look like you planned it…you will be remembered as one of my role models.”
With these answers circling my head, I thought about Ryan — kind, honest, helping Ryan; funny, energetic, studious Ryan. I would like to think that if I were to be gone tomorrow, my peers, my family, and my friends would mourn but also revel and celebrate my legacy — just as we mourn and celebrate Ryan.
As I started to write this piece, I made the decision not to discuss how my classmate and friend died.
While the way in which he died has been disclosed, I do not wish to speak or elaborate on it. This conscious decision serves one major function: I never want Ryan’s death to overshadow the person he was day in and day out. I am a strong believer in the notion that one separate and distinct moment in one’s life, completely unrelated to anything else that person has ever done, should never define that person’s life holistically.
The way in which he died does not impact the way my university community, his friends, his family, or myself think about him, his life, and his ultimate legacy.
To my university, Ryan will forever be a smart man.
To Ryan’s family, he will always be a nice, honest person.
To the undergrads that riddled the halls of our school, Ryan will always be a helpful leader.
To me, Ryan will forever be an amateur comedian, and I only hope that I can leave a whisper of the impact on others that he has.
Out of respect for the Deceased’s family and other grievers, the Deceased’s name has been changed.