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Dear Amy,

How do you make the best out of a bad situation? Or better yet, how can I feel OK with myself and my decisions when I’m not quite sure about the complexity of who I am? I unexpectedly lost a parent last summer, just after I reached a place where I felt confident with the direction my life was going. In just a single moment, and within the course of the months leading up to now, every aspect of my life changed.

I couldn’t remember who I was in the beginning stages of my grieving process. I no longer knew whether I wanted to study journalism, or live in New York anymore. And so, I became impulsive. I figured that, if I was no longer sure about these things, then I must be the opposite. I became determined to transfer out of design school and to a university that offered a pre-med program, closer to home, where I could be there for my widowed mother (whose extent of grief I can’t possibly imagine even though I’m going through it myself).

For months, the application process allowed me to feel like I had control of my life again. I think part of why I did so well in my remaining time at design school was because I felt that I had to satisfy the need to submit an application that would be undeniable. And undeniable it was. I was accepted to all of the five schools I applied to. Something that I never imagined for myself.

I chose the school closest to home. And now I am here, facing the ramifications of my decision to convince myself that I am a person who wants to study cells and go to a school that isn’t my old one and live in a town that, this time last year, I yearned to leave.

I want to return back to design school, to New York. I want to study what has been my passion for most of my life but have never given the chance—design and technology. And I’ve been offered readmission, but the truth is there is one thing that’s keeping me from making the move—being here for my mother. I know, I know. I should think about what will be the best for me and my future first. That’s what my mother would want for me, too.

But being here for my mother reflects one of my most important values—love and human connection. So now I’m here asking you this: what happens when your values go head-to-head and a pro-con list is no longer sufficient? Where do you go from here when, what’s best for you and what you are living for no longer align? How do I know that moving back isn’t just another impulsive decision, a by-product of the grief I still feel?

Impossible questions, I know. But by the end of the day, a decision will have to be made: stay or go. A real tough decision. I guess what I’m really asking is, how do I find contentment/confidence in whatever decision I make? What can I do I to make the best of it?

Sending love,
Alyssa

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Dear Alyssa,

I am so sorry for your loss, for your mothers loss, and for the aftermath that you are facing as a result. You cannot blame yourself for making this decision in the midst of your grief and pain: it is impossible to think when you are feeling so much. You lost someone who made you whole—of course your choices at this time are going to be somewhat broken too. People talk about ‘getting over’ the death of a loved one, but it is not something you ‘get over’ or ‘move on’ from. You have entered a new world in which he is not there. As you try and navigate this strange existence, and this choice ahead of you, be gentle with yourself.

Part of me wishes I could say that you should absolutely accept the readmission offer to New York. That, as you say, it’s what your mother would want, and that after such a blow you deserve an opportunity that will make you happy. And yet. I don’t think happiness is enough for you, or anyone, to exist as a full, whole, human being. I think what you’re really after (just like all of us) is peace. And while I believe that moving back to New York would give you happiness, I’m not sure it will give you peace. Here-in lies your conflict: trying to make a decision that makes sense in your head as well as your heart. It sounds like you have discovered something very clear about yourself: a core value of ‘being there’ for your mom. This, you call ‘the truth’. It is the one thing you know for sure. This is where you should start. Our decisions should always be based in what we know to be true for us, and for that reason, ‘being there’—whatever shape or form that takes—must underlie whatever choice you make. We find peace by living our truth, and ‘being there’ is yours. Hang onto it. This is not to say that by choosing peace you cannot also be happy—the two are not mutually exclusive. But happiness without peace is like a pretty balloon, high and bright and full of nothing.

So how can you make your truth of ‘being there’ line up with your rationale—a choice that will make you happy? I think you need to gain a better understanding of what ‘being there’ really means to you. Sit in a quiet place and write down everything that comes up when you think of this phrase. What do you keep circling back to? Is it safety? Support? What kind of support? Through care-taking, through conversation? Is there a way that you could replicate the essence of this value without living with your mother? Talk to your mom about what ‘being there’ might look like if you lived in New York. Can you figure out a schedule of regular visits and daily phone calls that will satisfy you both? Or maybe she does need you there physically, in which case, you live with her for six months—after which you and your mom’s version of ‘being there’ might shift. If, however, there is a way that you can ‘be there’ for her while living apart, then choosing to return to design school will not be against your values. But if you move back without acknowledging what you require to be at peace, you might find a pebble in your soul that no amount of New York happiness can shake out. What does ‘being there' mean to your mom? What does she really need from you? Your mother loves you, but it is not you who can heal her and it is not you whom she misses.

‘I know, I know. I should think about what will be the best for me and my future first.’ I’d urge you to forget about what you ‘should’ or ‘should not be’ doing right now, and start from scratch. In the same way you look closer at what ‘being there’ means for you, take some time to explore ‘what will be the best for me’, and how that may be more nuanced considering your new world. Maybe a small part of you wrote this letter hoping for me to affirm your ‘I know, I know. I should…’, and encourage you to fulfill that opportunity in New York that you deserve so very much. But perhaps an even smaller, quieter part of you wrote this in hope of permission to dig deeper inside of yourself, to honor a truth that you can feel but are scared to commit to. Contentment is not something we find, it is something we create. The only way to create contentment is to do what is ‘right’ for us—by doing what is true.

Love,
Amy

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