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9th March 2017

Dealing with bereavement at university

Lauren Gibbins offers some advice for students dealing with loss

University is an extremely pivotal part of every young person’s life. It is a huge upheaval and can cause a whole range of different emotions — fear, excitement, nervousness or apprehension. It is coined the ‘time of our lives’ since, for the most of us, we are at that in-between stage of adulthood: Mature enough to move out and fend for ourselves, but still bringing washing home every once in a while. However, for some students like myself there is the added pressure of having to deal with the never-ending struggle that is post-bereavement grief.

I lost my dad on the 2nd of June 2010, the day before my 15th birthday. I still remember the day clearly — we had been to visit a motorcycle dealership in Preston where my dad had booked a track day, and bought my mum a pair of motorcycle gloves. It was a really sunny day and I was sunbathing on the trampoline listening to my iPod when my dad left to go to a dentist appointment. He decided to take the bike.

I remember something feeling a bit off that day but I just brushed it aside. When my dad kissed my mum goodbye I remember thinking to myself, “tell her you love her”. It was a weird, overwhelming thought and when my dad said bye to me I just responded with that typical ‘yeah, bye’ teenage grunt. I thought nothing more of it until a few hours had passed and a police woman turned up on the driveway.

I didn’t actually notice her myself, but I remember my sister Ceri coming upstairs to tell me, and then I realised that my dad had been gone for much longer than he should’ve been for a dentist appointment.

I went outside and tried to calm down. I rang my dad’s mobile, telling myself that if he picked up everything would be ok: He would be riding his bike, it was a nice day, he would be making the most of it and be back soon. Obviously, he never answered.

The next thing I remember was my grandparents turning up on the driveway and walking over to my mum. I remember them all hugging each other and seeming very upset, but I didn’t think the worst had actually happened. My initial thought was that maybe he had fallen off and was in hospital, but soon we were all summoned into the kitchen where my mum broke the news that my dad had been killed in a motorcycle accident and would not be coming home.

My dad’s accident happened at a very confusing time in my life. As a teenager, I was already very self conscious like most girls, and in the process of trying to work out who I wanted to be — that is not to say that losing my dad at a different point in my life would’ve been any easier, but it had a huge knock-on effect on some of the most important years of my life to date, including my GCSE’s, A Levels and now university.

One of the most significant obstacles I have had to overcome since moving to university has been exams. As I previously mentioned, I lost my dad in the June of 2010, which is always right in the middle of exam season. Since year eleven, I have had to revise for and sit exams on or around the anniversary of my dad’s death, which is naturally a very difficult time for me. It is something I have had to just get used to because there is no way of getting around it in England — you cannot choose your own exam dates. There are, of course, mitigating circumstances, but I have only used these twice — for my GCSE exams in 2010 because they were directly after the accident, and then again in my second year of university when my grandma passed away.

Writing this now, I truly understand how ridiculous it sounds, but at the time I felt as if I was making a big deal out of nothing. I accepted results which were not a true reflection of my ability because I thought that when applying for mitigating circumstances I would either be told that it had not occurred in the recent past, or that I would be defined as the girl who needed special treatment because her dad had died. Of course now I know that this isn’t the case at all — I had lots of help in the form of deadline extensions and extra considerations on exam results, but I’m not someone who likes being the centre of attention and I allowed myself to suffer in silence because I thought I just had to get on with it.

The other big aspect of university life is the social element. On the one hand I didn’t want to miss out on the crucial first weeks where you form your friendship groups, but at the same time I was struggling on a personal level which often left me unable to leave my room. I wasn’t overly happy with my halls of residence, which definitely didn’t help, and I didn’t have the support system of living with people I was really close with.

Though there were nice people in the flats around me who would always text asking me to come out, I found myself saying no and settling in for a night in alone with a buffering Netflix every two seconds. After a while, people stopped persisting and I became a miserable recluse on top of the already-existing struggles I faced each day.

In my first year of university, I sat my final Italian exam on the 3rd of June, my birthday, and had planned to go out that night to celebrate. In the end, I was so overwhelmed from the stress of the past few days surrounding the anniversary of my dad’s death alongside revision that I had a panic attack and didn’t make it out at all. I felt like I had embarrassed myself and let all my friends down, but was at the same time resentful because it seemed as though they hadn’t remembered what was really going on. Looking back on it now, they had no reason to remember the date that I had probably mentioned only once before and were more concerned about my welfare than what had really caused it.

Although your friends at home probably know about your loss, your new friends might not and you may not have found the right time to tell them. It is difficult telling people who don’t already know, it often causes mild awkwardness, particularly if they have just asked you something along the lines of “so, what do your parents do?” or, in the case of one ex-boyfriend, “when am I going to meet your dad?”.

I was, however, very fortunate to meet some really amazing friends on my course who have been an incredible support network for me over the past two and a half years. Even now when we are all in separate foreign cities on our Erasmus year abroad, I know I can message them whenever for a chat, and I look forward to living with them when we return for our final year in September.

I chose to study a joint honours with a language because it allowed me the chance to improve my employability and live in a foreign country for a year whilst still receiving a student loan. When applying, I never really sat down and thought about how difficult it could be to uproot myself from a city only an hour’s train ride away from home and live in a country I had never even visited before. I was looking at it through rose-tinted glasses — the thought of getting a year’s break whilst my other friends were slogging over their dissertations was more than mildly appealing.

But I had an enormous sense of guilt when I first arrived — I felt as though I had left my family and friends behind. My grandma passed away in March 2016 when my sister was working in New Zealand on her gap year and I now understood how bad she had felt for not being at home. My mum warned me that my grandma’s death would probably set me right back to where I’d been in June 2010 and she was absolutely right — it came at a time when I was only just really beginning to accept what had happened to my dad. I was tempted to try put off my Erasmus year abroad, since I didn’t feel in the right mental state and, when September came and I was sat alone in Manchester Airport’s Terminal 3, it hit me that I was going to be more than just a quick train away from my closest support units for a significant amount of time.

Six months into my year abroad and I can say first hand that it has done me the world of good. Manchester is only around an hour away from my home in Preston, so I rely on the fact that I can go home whenever I really want with little expense, but the truth is, being out of my comfort zone has not only kept me too busy to dwell on things, it has also allowed me a break from the things which were affecting my mental health the most, such as employment and the pressure of constant presentations, assignments and exams. At the end of the day, Italy is only a 2 hour flight away from Manchester — so that if I really do need to go home I can, but I’m still far away enough to have been forced to find alternative coping mechanisms to deal with the grief alone.

A bittersweet by-product of losing a loved one is the amount of people who hurry to support you, telling you that they are always there and if you ever need anything to let them know, but I was only just 15 when the accident happened, and I didn’t really register at the time that I’d be grieving for the rest of my life while these people were just moving on with theirs. The saying ‘life goes on’ really does apply here — I felt resentful towards those who seemed to have forgotten about the situation two weeks later, when meanwhile my life had been turned upside down.

It is a very lonely experience and I understand now, from an outsider’s viewpoint, the reasons why many feel the need to back off, so as not to suffocate the person or to get back to their own lives. The world does not stop turning just because something like this happens. I still have days even now when I feel particularly low and wonder why none of my friends have asked how I am or why they all seem to be having an amazing time while I am moping in my room. The truth about living with loss is that you are never fully over it. Grief can do strange things to your mental state and skews even the most rational of situations but eventually you just learn to deal with this on a day-to-day basis. I think about my dad and my grandma every single day, but the way it affects me differs.

For anyone who has suffered a personal loss, whether it be recently or a while ago, just know that you’re not alone. There will undoubtedly be times when you feel low, numb, scared, angry, but there will times when you feel equally happy, remembering the good times with a smile rather than a tear. You will be able to sit with your loved ones and discuss the time your grandma did a jaeger-bomb at her 70th birthday party (true story) and you will be able to move forward, taking all of this with you as the biggest learning curve of your life.

University is tough for everyone, especially so for those battling with their mental health, and it can often seem as though there is no point to any of it — trust me, I have been there. One of the only things which motivated me to continue was the realisation that if I had been able to survive the loss of my dad, I could definitely survive a four year degree course. If you’re someone who is struggling, know that although it never gets easier, you will learn the best way to cope with it and come out the other side.

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