The truth about grieving at university

Published

Credit: Elena Coderoni Rigamonti

Kristy Leeds
Writer

Kristy Leeds discusses her experience of dealing with the loss of a loved one while starting university

I have thought about writing this article for a really, really long time. I needed to try and let go of a burden that’s been weighing heavily on me, to release and to finally feel a bit better. But it was hard to formulate my clustered cloud of thoughts onto a page; if I couldn’t make sense of them, how could I expect anyone else to? However, around three months have passed since my grandad died and I think I can finally articulate myself and tell the wholehearted truth, without being too overcome with emotion. After all, three months in the grand scheme of things is quite a short period of time, compared to a lifetime of memories and experiences shared with someone you love.

It is important to open up as much as possible in this period, rather than close up. That requires people to be as understanding as they can, but it also lets people know that you might need a bit of help and that you might not be acting as normal. Hopefully, this piece will relate to some of the feelings that others in similar circumstances are experiencing, and perhaps answer some questions. But above all, I hope it will emphasise the fact that it is alright to make your grief known, especially in an odd environment like university which is very much removed from the experience of death.

Firstly, I will talk about my personal experience. I had been in Glasgow, as a fresher, for three weeks. My younger sister had trekked up on the train to come and see me for the weekend. Painfully for the both of us, her visit was short lived. On the beautiful, bright Sunday morning of the 30 September, we were shocked and devastated to find out that our loving, wonderful, kind Grandad (to whom we were extremely close) had passed away. We were strolling through Kelvingrove Museum at the time, when we were shocked to find our parents standing behind us. One look at mum’s face told us everything we needed to know. The worst had happened: he was gone. This is when, effectively, everything in my life fell apart, and it felt like the walls of the Kelvingrove Gallery were collapsing around me.

After I managed to partially pull myself together, out from the mass of heaving sobs, I returned home to be with my family. Although this is where I had the right to be, because it was home, I felt so displaced. I couldn’t stop thinking “Why are you back home? You have lectures! You’ve only just got here!” And, home itself felt different now. Home, to me, was wherever the people I loved were, and now there was one less, it was reasonable to say I was heartbroken. Grandad had suffered with Alzheimer’s for the last few years of his life, yet despite this he had always been in perfect health. He had been a constant presence, no matter what had happened, and he was a huge part of my life. Therefore, my reaction for weeks after his passing was that of sheer disbelief and denial. The last time I had seen him was four weeks previously, before university had started, and he was full of life. I constantly tortured myself, wishing that I had known it was going to be the last time I would see him. It was like I couldn’t put the jigsaw together, I couldn’t understand why I felt so displaced and wrong and how someone could be there, and then not there? I kept trying to read about grief, to rationalise it. Until you realise the only standardised thing you can probably say about grief at all is that it is totally irrational.

This is completely acceptable. Nothing can prepare you for what is going to happen. One thing that is crucial to remember though, is that many people can empathise with grief. Even though it is unlikely anyone can comfort you, what can be comforting nonetheless is talking to people who have experienced it and seeing that they are okay now. It is likely the strongest people you know have had an experience like yours. It doesn’t make it hurt less, it just gives you hope that eventually, it will hurt a bit less. It’s such a cliché to say that time is a healer, but it really is.

Another recurring feeling I had was guilt, mostly because of being at university. I had huge waves of it and for so many different reasons. Mostly, guilt for showing my emotions. I knew that my Mum, Nan and Uncle were probably feeling more pain than me, and I hated burdening them with my feelings, so I tended to make an effort not to. Also, I felt guilty when I returned to Glasgow the week after. It was so many miles away from my family and I felt I should have been there, but also, I did not want to be, because in Glasgow the whole thing was easier to ignore and pretend to carry on as normal. Finally, I felt guilty when I was enjoying something, even if it was trivial – I felt like it was selfish to be happy, because everyone else in my family was so sad. Eventually I realised this is no way to live. I was taking my grief out on myself so harshly – even with a really great group of mates, I ultimately took the full hit myself and looked inward, rather than trying to talk and look for help, in a pattern of behaviour which I saw as “being an adult”. On reflection, it is clear this is a toxic and damaging idea, and it most likely made things a lot worse.

Of course, there is no right way to grieve and everyone feels differently, however, off the back of this experience, there are some lasting things I think are important to remember if you are in this situation, or know someone in it.

1. Try not to feel guilty. Cut yourself some slack – if you can’t concentrate on work, don’t do it.

2. Don’t bother trying to rationalise your feelings – try and roll with them, because trying to suppress them often means they swell up and burst – then nothing will make sense and grief will rear its head in the weirdest of ways.

3. Ask for help, even if you don’t think you need it.

4. If some of your friends aren’t up to helping or are making things worse, cut them out, don’t be afraid to be selfish. You only need people around you that care for you, who will check on you and who will want to help you. If you feel more comfortable chatting to someone completely removed from the situation, the Nightline service can be really useful.

5. Additionally, if you want a more in-depth conversation and more continued help, the university provides counselling services, which you can apply for online.

Grief for me, along with the guilt that accompanied it, was horrendous. I am still grieving, and I still have sad days. It’s something you learn to live with, as much as you don’t want to, and you learn a lot about yourself too. As time progresses and it becomes less raw, opening up is less difficult and you get stronger and more resilient by the day, finally understanding that it is alright to let grief show its head. Sometimes awful, unfair, tragic things happen in life that make no sense at all. It’s not this event that defines you, but the journey that leads you to recovery. To anyone that is grieving, I am with you and I understand. Please remember, your feelings are valid and there’s always help if you need it.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed in this article you can contact one of the resources below for information and support:

Glasgow University Nightline:

https://www.gunightline.org/

0141 334 9516

[email protected]

Counselling and Psychological Services:

0141 330 4528

[email protected]