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We’ve Seen it All: balance, grief and independence

April 19, 2024

Kaya Patel

It’s one of the last iterations of the advice column with a twist! In case you’re new here, this is how it works: Bowdoin students submit anonymous questions via a QR code, and older community members from People Plus—a community recreation center for older adults in Brunswick—reply with their advice.

Thank you so much to Cathy (66), Michael (82), Steve (72) and Virginia (69), who let me interrupt them as they played bridge one Tuesday morning. I hope you enjoy their advice as much as I enjoyed meeting them. (P.S., if you’d like some background music as you read, see if you can dig up songs from Steve’s former rock and roll band, Sudden Thunder.)

Q: How can I balance my remaining time at Bowdoin with preparing for the future?

Cathy: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. It can be done. Figure out what you want to do temporarily, because some temporary things end up being your passion. Having a temporary job gives you freedom and time to think about what is right for you long term.

Steve: At the end of my four years, I was cramming and studying and started having dreams that I couldn’t figure everything out. When that happened, I quit studying and played cards for the last week.

Michael: I would say there’s no comfort [for] the last three months. Life seems long but it’s not. You must make moves now. Investigate your strong points. Test your intuitiveness. Try things you have never tried before. You have a lot of soul-searching to do.

Virginia: Sometimes when you’re younger, making mistakes seems horrible. When you’re older, they don’t mean that much. If you choose the wrong path, you can change it.

Steve: Some people say making mistakes is the best way to learn.

Q: Do you have any advice for living far away from family?

Steve: Don’t do it! I never seem to find the time to go visit my kids. My oldest son lives in Georgia; my daughter lives in South Carolina. Visits are about once a year each way.

Cathy: I did it! You’re exiting a campus of like-minded people and entering the real world. But you’re at an age where you can now understand this world. That alone will give you confidence. You will gain maturity. My definition of maturity is how you manage to interact with the world.

Michael: First thing, enjoy it. You’ll be learning new things about people and areas and different perspectives. Jump in! I grew up in New Jersey. My father and I were disagreeing about some things, and I sold my car and went to Heidelberg University in Germany. I got fluent in German, French and Spanish and saw things instead of pictures.

Virginia: I think it’s easier now because you can do FaceTime. Somehow the world feels closer than it used to. I would say, don’t worry that your relationships will fade. Your life changes. You have family. You travel. But you come back to the friends that are in your heart. I had ten years where I didn’t talk to my best friend. As soon as you reconnect, it’s like you’ve never been apart.

Q: How do you help a friend that is grieving the loss of a loved one?

Cathy: I have sat beside a person and asked them what they needed. They will tell you. Sometimes they need nothing. Sometimes you just sit. I’m part of a local meetup group of retired women in Brunswick. We restaurant hop, go to Boston, drink wine, play games at each other’s homes.… The biggest point of this group is that we support each other. Sharing memories is good. I was able to stand up in front of a church when my father-in-law passed away because I had a story I wanted to tell. It was helpful for me and for others that could then think about their own stories of him.

Steve: Tell them that it’s alright to show your emotions, cry, whatever. Just understand that they’re going to have emotions. They should show them, not suppress them.

Michael: A hug. Verbalizing what I felt, even if I didn’t necessarily understand it, gave me the ability to tune in and figure out what’s right. You take one thing, and you deal with it and put it in the box. One at a time.

Virginia: I’d almost say you can’t make it better. You want to desperately make it better, and unfortunately, it’s something they have to go through and all you can do is be there. Let time heal. You have to feel that pain. If it’s deep in you, your grief reflects that relationship. It should hurt. Cook them some food.


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