Lily: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When we experience major loss in our lives, these are the emotions we feel. The five stages of grief. Only, this isn't a five stages of grief story, because that means our story would have a definite end. That healing is a linear process that we can somehow achieve. And this is not that kind of story. In fact, the story does not begin with grief at all. It begins at my USD transfer orientation. Everyone was so awkward at this orientation, including myself. After years of lockdown, I wasn't used to interacting with other people, so I mostly just kept to myself…until my orientation leader walked in. His name was Nicholas and he was a USD senior. He was outgoing and kindhearted, and he instantly relieved my nerves. His major goal was to make our group feel comfortable at USD and in sharing our experiences. But when he asked the group to open up about why we decided to transfer to USD, the room fell silent. So he opened up instead about why he decided to transfer to USD, and it had to do with his experiences with grief.
Nicholas: So I moved to Rome when I was 18, I was just graduated high school. And I really ended up there because of my curiosity about the world. As I was…how…you know, I was trying to figure out my sexuality in high school. And I think I really had to hide my whole life kind of who I was. And Europe really provided that, in a sense escapism from, you know, this persona that I had always been so afraid of.
Lily: So Nicholas was living his best life in Rome. He spent the weekdays in his classes and in the weekends, he traveled to places like Amsterdam and Switzerland. He was no longer running away from his identity, but he couldn't escape problems back home. His mom was sick. She had osteoporosis and stopped taking care of herself. Her health slowly slipped away from her over time. And…
Nicholas: I remember the moment it happened, I was…I looked at my phone and I saw my dad's name. And I just immediately, like, had this moment of…all the air just kinda left my body. Like, I just, it felt like such a disappointing feeling because I knew what was about to come because my mom, if there was any other emergency, my mom's name would've been on the phone. So I knew right away. And, you know, I answered and it just, you know, a father trying to tell their child something that…of that depth of gravity, um, he just was stumbling. And I just remember just saying, like, just tell me.
Lily: It was unexpected and heartbreaking and confusing. Nicholas was 5,000 miles away from his home in Colorado and had nowhere to go. In a place that was once so freeing for him, he now felt trapped.
Nicholas: I remember I looked out my window and it was just the building next to mine. You know, all the apartments in Rome were very vibrantly, colored orange, re-, you know, they're just such bright colors and the most beautiful blue skies out. And I just remember feeling like that this blurriness came over my eyes like life just…got a bit grayer at that point.
Lily: His mom passed in November of 2019. And by March 2020, the entire world was shut down. Nicholas's dad was immune compromised, so he quarantined in his hometown in California. Nicholas and his siblings stayed in their childhood home in Colorado, surrounded by memories of their mother.
Nicholas: Me and my sister, you know, went down in our living room and we pushed our couches together and made this huge giant fort, like as if we were 10 years old again. And that was just so fun because we had all pictures of mom around and we had like all of the little knick-knacks that she loved and we just kind of, we slept there for, oh God, I can't remember how long quarantine was, but it was long enough to be like, this was a beautiful last moment, because then my dad ended up moving out to California. We sold our childhood house.
Lily: So, he got a final moment of closure with a fresh start in California, but Nicholas was experiencing so much change. He needed familiarity and his mom's Alma Mater was the answer.
Nicholas: I think, trying to search for any familiarity led me to applying to USD because I have so many stories of my mom being on campus and her old college, you know, stories where she'd get into trouble. And she, but also she would have just, like just such amazing moments here at USD and then to have my parents get married at Founders.
Lily: Founders Chapel is an exclusive wedding venue, only reserved for USD alumni, students and faculty. It meant a lot that Nicholas could spend his time in a place where his parents once fell in love, got married, and started his family.
Nicholas: I know that I've had multiple times, I probably couldn't count my hand, since I've been here, where I've just been so overwhelmed with school, or I just am having a, you know, a more gray day with my grief and I just walk into founders and just sit there and just kind of soak it up. And I think that's just such a beautiful thing to be able to have a meaningful experience out of it, in such kind of an unorthodox type of way.
Lily: And these gray days began to happen more frequently. Nicholas began missing classes, turning in essays late. And one teacher in particular began to notice.
Mercado: Nicholas is such a brilliant student. I mean, he's brilliant. He's smart. He is empathetic.
Lily: That was Dr. Antoinetta Mercado. She taught Nicholas's Media and Conflict class.
Mercado: At some point he…he started to, uh, to miss some classes. I reach out and I, over the Christmas break and I…I wrote several emails. I wanna know that you are doing okay because it was so out of character, right? Like he…he's this very bright, uh, very social, very smart person. And suddenly he just withdrew.
Lily: The two began talking about schoolwork, but Nicholas soon felt comfortable opening up to Dr. Mecado about his mom.
Nicholas: I remember she had mentioned in COMM 336 about the unfortunate passing of her mother and her father. And she was telling me about these, you know, amazing stories of her father and her mother. And I was just astounded by, you know, the way that she just kind of gets, she just gets it.
Mercado: And then he told me that it was the anniversary of his mom's passing.
Lily: Dr. Mercado and Nicholas began talking more frequently. Nicholas would share quotes and poems he would find about mothers, and Dr. Mecado would share with him how her culture and heritage shaped her views on grief.
Mercado: You know, that I organized the Day of the Dead on campus, right? It's a moment when you meditate, you're honoring their lives and you are lighting a candle and putting some flowers and you're thinking they are on the other side. And at some point in my, in my existence, I will be on the other side, I'll…I'll be transitioning. So it's a very wholesome, a very, it's a moment when you think where you come from, the people who have been important, even if you haven't met them through memory, right? That's an also very important moment for memory.
Lily: The Day of the Dead allowed Nicholas to see life less as a linear process with an end, but more as a cycle through nature.
Mercado: Well, look at the sky, look at the rain, look at the earth. We usually think that our lives are linear, but Mother Earth is telling us every moment that is a cycle. Even the shape of Earth is a cycle. If you look at the shape of nature, you see all those, uh, cycles, right? You just think about that. Think about how there is a transformation of matter. And maybe, you know, you are, you are transcending into that cycle of nature.
Lily: And it's in this cycle where Nicholas learned to heal and the importance of nature in his connection to his grief.
Nicholas: I used to be so afraid of insects. Like when I was younger, if I saw a bee, I tried to kill it, I would, you know what I mean?
Lily: And now bees just might be his new favorite insect.
Nicholas: It's crazy to say that, you know, I see my mom, you know, in the bees that come up or like will come right near me when I'm having hard conversations. I remember I was talking to some boy and I, my mom never gotta meet a boyfriend. I never dated. So she ne-...she never really got to see this aspect of me explore my sexuality, being so open with it, which is, I know what she wanted so badly for me, but I just, I remember talking to this boy and it was just, I never felt like such a great connection. And I was having such a unique conversation that only my mom and I would usually have, and a bee just came and sat right next to me.
Lily: While Nicholas sees his mom in bees, Dr. Mecado sees her mom in butterflies.
Mercado: Hummingbirds, and butterflies. And for us, the butterfly is also a, a symbol of the souls of the, of the dead. And it, it's also part of life, right? Because of butterfly goes through that transformation. And it has to, in some ways be dormant, right? It's part of that process, that cycle.
Lily: And for a moment, I forgot I was at transfer orientation. And Nicholas was just able to move on and say, “okay, who wants to go next?”. A true testament to his healing, but Nicholas's story allowed me to open up about my transfer experience and ultimately led us to become good friends.
Nicholas: So I remember I left and I called my sister. I was like, “I think I literally just trauma dumped on them”, but no, that made me feel that makes me feel like it was worth it to take on a leadership role, but also be able to integrate, you know, my personal perspective.
Lily: Finding community in Nicholas ultimately helped me to find my way at USD, and finding Dr. Mecado helped him. And his healing isn't over because that would mean our story would have a definite end. And this is not that kind of story. Because just like a bee pollinating a flower or a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, healing takes time. And maybe some good company along the way.