The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Pushing Past Loss

There are moments that shape us and upend our understanding of the world. Often, those experiences challenge us to grow in important, though painful, ways. Occasionally, I’ll see this with one of my patients as they push through the pain of a debilitating injury and work to return to their normal life. No matter the circumstances, we often emerge from these seemingly impossible situations as stronger, more empathetic people. We become more appreciative of our loved ones and are more invested in our everyday lives.

My first experience with true adversity came with the passing of my grandfather, which occurred in 1994, just as I was entering my freshman year as an undergraduate. It was my first real brush with death, and the loss of someone so important to me left me reeling. Following his passing, I went through one of the darkest periods of my life, and I was forced to make some tough decisions. In the end, the experience shaped me in meaningful ways, and I ultimately matured as a person.

When I was growing up, my family lived in the same apartment building as my grandparents, and we spent a lot of time with them. Every Thursday, they’d cook spaghetti with homemade marinara sauce for my brothers, my parents, and me, while Sundays were reserved for macaroni. They were like a second set of parents to me, always welcoming us with open arms. To say my grandfather was a character would be an understatement. He never received any formal education, and as a result, he couldn’t read or write. Instead, he had a shrewd street intelligence and drive that allowed him to hustle and grind his way through any situation. He was a gambler who would often hang out in local social clubs. When he met anyone new, he’d expertly work an angle on them and figure them out with just a glance or two. To me, though, he was just an incredible guy, always cracking hilarious jokes. Despite his mischievous side, he would definitely be the first person to give you the shirt off his back.

When he passed away, I was in my first semester at St. Peter’s College. I had never lost any family or anyone close to me, and his loss hit me harder than I could have imagined. Though up until that point I’d been a great student, my GPA began to plummet, and I started missing days of class, slipping into a kind of post-grief depression. As I considered the incredible man who was no longer a part of my life, I was forced to reckon with the way I saw the world, relying on my faith as a Catholic. Though I’d felt like a grown-up as I headed to college, I now felt like a little boy thrust into an adult situation. In the end, I decided that no matter what I was going through, I needed to process it and move forward. I transferred to Richard Stockton College, and that was the first significant adult decision I made. I wanted to do right by the memory of my grandfather, so I relied on the street smarts and perceptive vision that he’d taught me to propel my life and career forward.

Even now, long after my grandparents have passed, that experience sticks in my mind. My grandfather was an amazing person, and his passing taught me there are ways to push through adversity to transform your life for the better.

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