Illustration by Nora Wildberg

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

That chilling sentence is one that I’m all too familiar with. In February 2019, my dad suddenly passed away. My phone flooded with messages, and when they stopped coming, I thought that I would never have to hear that sentence again—or at least not within the near future. I didn’t know that I would be scarred by that same sentence again when my oldest sister passed away, later this year, in June 2019. Nothing could have prepared me for the rollercoaster of horror I’ve been through since then.

I distinctly remember that first fateful day: I was busy attending classes and stressing out about assignments because I had become so wholly consumed by the Princeton bubble. Anything outside of campus seemed only secondary in nature—I would call my parents irregularly and would always send short texts explaining how I was “busy with studying” or “doing well and going out with friends.” That day at 1:28 PM, I was quickly rushing to my favorite class, “Race is Socially Constructed. Now What?”. Although my phone was exploding with messages from my sisters asking, “why is dad not picking up the phone?” I didn’t think much about it because it was something that happened regularly. I was more fixated on attending my lecture and focusing on class, so I put my phone in my backpack and left it there. An hour into lecture, my phone started ringing, and my face immediately became bright red as the loud sound interrupted lecture. I shut my phone off immediately and continued focusing on my class, despite the glares that I got in my direction. When lecture ended, Momo, the head of Whitman College, came in and asked if I could accompany him because my sister, Jennie ’20, wanted to speak to me. I was so confused because I wondered why she hadn’t just texted or called me. If she knew I had precept 10 minutes after lecture, why would she pull me out of class to talk with me in the Whitman College office?

When I walked into the office and opened the door, I saw my sister—eyes red and puffy with tears dripping down her face—crying by herself in the empty room. She comes over to hug me and starts shakily speaking words between gasps of air. “I called”—gasp—“the police”—gasp—“and they said”—gasp— “they said that”—gasp—“that our dad”—gasp—“died.” I sat in shock. I repeated the words in my head, pinched myself to see if it was all real, and then sat in place, staring off into the distance when I realized that I was not living in a dream—my dad had passed away, and there was nothing that I could do that would change that fact.

The rest of the day was a blur. I packed my things and left for the airport that night to go back home. I did not tell anyone what had happened. It was only when I had to cancel on meals and extracurricular activities and stopped showing up to class that people reached out asking where I was. In response, I simply said “my dad passed away, so I’m back home with my family.” Like wildfire, my phone exploded with messages of “I’m sorry for your loss,” “I can’t imagine how you’re feeling,” “I am always here for you if you want to talk.” But all these messages were simply words strewn together that fell flat and did not offer any type of meaningful support. Why should you be sorry for me when it was my dad who lost his life?—If anything, we should be sorry that he does not get another day on earth.

When I got back to campus, it was the same exact thing, but this time I was hearing the words instead of simply reading them through text. People would come up to me, hug me, ask me how I was doing, and proceed to tell me to reach out or get coffee if I ever needed to chat. These loving gestures were combined with the awkwardness of people staring at me, knowing what had happened but feeling too uncomfortable to talk to me. In those moments, I wanted to bury myself in my academics, and I did; I knew the chemical reactions I diagrammed would not judge me in the sorrow and pity that other people would. I felt split in that I wanted people to understand what I was going through, but I also wanted so desperately for life to go back to what it once was.

While people were definitely supportive, Princeton went back to being the orange bubble after some time. The workload built up, and there was no time to slow down and reflect on anything else. Although my academic advisor told me to consider taking time off from Princeton, I refused. I wanted to succeed academically because I knew my father had sacrificed so much for my education. I did not want to become the laughingstock—“look at Richard, did so well first semester, and now he has to take a year off.” For the rest of the semester, I basically funneled myself in either Firestone or my five classes. I felt that my life was so unpredictable that the only power and control I had was over my academics. I knew that if I put all my energy into the assignments and exams, I could surely do well on them. As a result, I barely got sleep or any social time, and soon, the year ended.

I thought the worst was over. I thought my life would get back on track. I thought I would have an amazing internship in China and then enjoy solo traveling to Singapore and Seoul—I could not have been further off the mark.

It was two weeks into my internship, and I was still struggling to adjust to China. I went to sleep super early because I was exhausted, and my stomach ached. When I woke up in the morning, I felt even worse and texted my advisor that I would not be coming into lab that day. She asked if I needed anything, to which I said no and proceeded to go back to bed. When I woke up again, I heard my phone constantly buzzing, and all I did was shut it off every time. After a bit, I finally looked at the notifications and realized that my sister, Jennie, was calling me—I did not even think about how strange it was for her to call me from the US. All I wanted was for her to stop, so I could go back to bed. I answered irritably, telling her to “hurry up and just tell me what you want.” She responded saying to wait as she connected my mom to the group call. When everyone was finally together, I urged her to tell me what was going on. She finally stated plainly in a barely held together voice, “I do not know how to put this, but Annie ’18 passed away in a car accident.” I sat in shock, yet again, pinched myself, and asked if this was just a prank. My sister gave further details on what happened, and in the background, I could hear my mom crying. I did not know what to do but stomp and explode in anger—what did my family ever do to deserve this treatment?

Again, I quickly packed my stuff, took a train to meet my mom in Beijing, and booked a direct flight back home. Again, I heard the fateful words, “I am sorry for your loss,” over and over. This time, I could only think of how sorry I was for not being a better brother or cherishing the moments I had with Annie—instead of helping me recover, the sentence merely bottled me up with grief, guilt, and anger.

Several people texted me those words over the summer and said that they were always here for me. When I responded back with questions like “do you believe in an afterlife?” or “why is this happening?” some people simply just ghosted me. Either they did not know how to respond or they did not care enough to respond—which contradicted what they said earlier about “being there for me.” If you were truly sorry for my loss, you would support me in every moment. You would be able to take time off from your internship or travels and talk on the phone to check-up on me and not let a simple text be the end of the support.

One night a few weeks after the incident, I could not fall asleep because I wondered what would happen to me if I passed away the next day. Would I still exist spiritually in the world? Would I be reunited with the people I loved? Would I have people who were willing to stop their work and fly out to see me in my last moment during the service? I could not stop remembering one of my sister’s friends who canceled work and flew six hours last-minute to attend the service—she truly cared for my sister in a special way.

Did people care enough about me to do the same? Would people take a week off from Princeton to fly to North Carolina to attend my funeral?

These emotions bottled up and quickly erupted with tears down my face as I started hyperventilating in bed. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and my mind was spinning in circles. I texted one of my friends to see if she was awake at 3 AM—one that I knew would respond to my texts. She immediately replied and consoled me, reassuring me that everything was fine and convincing me how special life is: whether or not there is an afterlife, all we have right now is the ability to live life to the fullest. In this moment, I realized how useless words can be and how important actions are. I did not care if I got dozens of messages sympathizing with me; in that moment, I needed friends who were willing to have tough conversations and support me in my darkest moments. I needed friends that understood me, and ones where I did not have to put on a façade and act like I was doing well. I needed friends who I could trust with the dark emotions I felt—friendships where I could be my full, 100% authentic self.

The first drive to the funeral home in February was surreal because it made me think about how innocent I was as a kid: I remember seeing the rows of colorful flowers and detailed cenotaphs that complemented a tall, white mansion, but I had no idea what it was. I would ask my mom about it, and she would tell me that it was not a home I wanted to visit because of its bad energy—an expansive plot of land filled with dead people. Even with this, I still admired the beauty of the area and how peaceful and bright it seemed every time our car passed by the funeral home. Yet, this ride was different. The clouds covered the sky and the flowers lost their brilliance. The closer we drove to the empty parking lot, the more I noticed the number of decaying flowers and chipped, molded cenotaphs in the field—the beauty I once admired became an ugly nightmare I wanted to escape.

We got out of the car and entered the ominous building. Inside, we were greeted by an old lady at the front desk who called to get the funeral director. As we waited, I stared at the outdated furniture and interior design: the couches look like they were from the 60s and the beige-and-green color scheme gave a sterile feel to the air. Eventually, a short, balding man with a muffin-top greeted us with a lukewarm handshake, said the words, and then proceeded to walk us to his office where he talked in a matter-of-fact way about the pricing and options available.

“We need to transport the body back to North Carolina for the service,” “this casket is gasketed, which provides extra protection from the elements,” and “have you ever considered cremation?”

With each word out of his mouth, I could not believe someone so innocent in appearance would only show any emotion—that of excitement and joy—when we were paying more for “add-on” features. He tried to hide it, but I saw right through his spectacles and unassuming suit—there was the slightest hint of a smile and a fixation on our credit card.

When it was time to drive out to view the plots of land, a tall man with a smirk on his face came into the room, introduced himself briefly as the man-in-charge of the cemetery, and proceeded to shake our hands and tell us the same fateful sentence. We followed him outside, but a complete transformation occurred. The man was not the sympathetic friend he presented himself as at first—instead, he was now a sales agent. He began convincing us that we should consider buying plots for the rest of us now because it is 50% off since we are still living.

“You need our services when you die, so there is no discount then.”

He was right though. We needed the service and no other cemetery could provide a close location to our home—we wanted my dad to be forever close with us.

When we visited the land again for my oldest sister, the same guy—or sales agent—said, “I’m sorry for your loss” and drove us to the plots available—he scoffed stating that “we should have bought them earlier” and that “these plots are so nice like a new car.” After choosing the plot and paying the bill, he then said the words once more. None of the people at the funeral home actually cared about our loss—they were more interested in the business we were generating. While I understand that it is a company that needs to make a profit, I could never expect the blatant disregard for respect.

The day of Annie’s service was strange in that it was so eerily familiar. I had been in the same building for my father four months ago—the decorations were similar, and the employees were identical. I remember feeling a twisted feeling in my gut because I had not seen my sister since my mom and her dropped me off at my internship. I did not know what she would be like after the accident. All I saw up to that point was a completely totaled and smashed car. As I walked into the building and into the room for my sister, I saw the casket we selected with a figure wearing clothes we had selected a few days prior. I inched closer and closer, and when I was right in front of my sister, my stomach dropped. Lying in the casket was my beloved sister with her eyes shut and hands crossed. I touched her hands briefly to talk with her, but I started tearing up because of how cold, stiff, and devoid of life her fingers were—it’s an experience unfortunately etched deep in my memory.

Annie meant everything to me. She helped me in so many aspects: from improving my writing skills to giving me genuine life advice. I remember she warned me against fake people who would take advantage of me—people who would never substantively care for my well-being. I would always scoff at this, but now, I realized just how true her statement was—I hate that it took her life for me to come to this realization.

I always wonder why it has become customary to say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Maybe it is because people do not know how to better approach the situation. Maybe it actually provides consoling support for some. For me, I view it as a cyclical issue that stems from society’s obsession with moving forward. It is convenient to simply say, “I’m sorry for your loss” and then carry on with the day. At the same time, I perpetuated this same standard when I decided to stay at Princeton and work to the bone to achieve academic success. I barely took time off to reflect on what had happened. If I could not even slow down, how could I expect others to?

Although I wish I could go back in time and never have experienced any of this, I strongly believe that it has made me a better person because I have grown away from the superficiality I’ve felt from the statement, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Before this, my values were all misguided, and I barely cherished the substantive parts of my life: I spent more time obsessing about a night out or having the perfect costume for the theme night than having deep conversations with my friends and family. My friendships were built on going out every weekend, even when I just wanted to stay in for a movie-and-wine night. Now, I focus on channeling my energy towards fostering genuine relationships with people that I will support—and ones where they will support me back.

With this mindset, I dove headfirst back into Princeton, only to be confronted by artificial interactions and conversations. For the first half of the semester, I hated that other people were posting stories that were not truly substantive to them; I hated that I could not be who I used to be and have carefree fun. During frosh week, all I could do was stare at everyone else catching up and dancing to the music while I stood awkwardly in a corner—not wanting to talk with anyone out of fear that they would ask how my summer went. I could not put my emotions to words. It was a mix of feeling guilty for going out and regret for how I behaved in the past. I later left that night and cried alone in an empty alleyway on Witherspoon Street before my friend came and comforted me. Sitting alone on the cold pavement gave me some sense of stability in that I was not losing control, and I chose to remove myself from the situation—however, I kept repeating in my head, “I wish I had a better life. I wish I could start over. I wish I could go back in time.

I slowly realized that I had a choice to make: I could either continue complaining and hoping for others to change or I could take agency by changing myself to find positivity out of the social life at Princeton. Now, if I choose to go out, I will do so because I am with people that matter to me, and I genuinely want to have chill fun—not because I am pressured to make an appearance or take photos for social media. Even on Instagram, I have started a one-a-day story collection in which I try to reflect on one positive experience I had that day—no matter how bad I am feeling. While it may look superficial to many, what matters is that I feel amazing getting to go through this self-reflection process each day and that I get to look back at all the amazing people, conversations, and experiences that I have in life. I want to leave this world knowing that I lived it to the fullest and most genuine way possible.

In retrospect, I am glad I got this learning opportunity to reflect on my values—family, friends, loyalty, and compassion—and work to reflect them in my actions. Now, I will never use “I’m sorry for your loss” as a scapegoat to remove myself from the situation—I will be there for the people that mean something to me and show my love through actions rather than empty words. Above all, this experience has showed me that my life does not simply end here—hardship and heartbreak will be thrown at me time and time again, but I know I will be able to find new avenues to grow from them once more and become an even better person than I ever imagined. Maybe, just maybe, this journey will bring me one step closer to my sister or dad in some way.

Annie: as your poster said in your room, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Today, I am taking that new step—one that will bring me on another, more substantive journey that I so desperately wish I could share with you.