Dealing with grief and the lack of compassion in the University’s ‘support structures’.
My mum passed away at the end of my first year of university, and it was the hardest thing I have ever faced. She died at the end of April, and three days later, I found myself sitting in Bute Hall, trying to pass first-year philosophy. Spiritual beliefs aside, I felt mum’s hand on my shoulder throughout the paper – a nice balance to the usual mental bombardment of my father’s “gentle” encouragement that normally plagues my brain in exams. A week later, whilst my friends celebrated the end of exam season, I buried my mother. When my boyfriend was nursing a hangover, I edited a eulogy. When my professors were marking exam papers, I selected the text for a gravestone. And when the student population were enjoying the summer break, I was learning to live without my mum.
Loss whilst at university is a unique and isolating experience. You are old enough to understand what is happening and yet far too young and carefree to be ready to carry such a burden. My experience taught me that as much as those around you will do all they can to show you love, very few people will be able to understand what you are going through. My hope with these words is to illustrate that as isolating as grief feels, experiencing loss at university sadly is an experience that affects many. A survey conducted on American college students indicates that for every two years of college, 1.7% of students can expect to lose a parent. Despite this statistic, my experience at the University of Glasgow indicated that support for students experiencing grief was distinctly lacking.
Throughout my first year, I was registered as a carer with the university, which made me privy to support groups and flexible deadlines. When I informed the carers service of my mum’s death, I received a cold response with a link to the counselling services. Similarly, my experience of attempting to submit a Good Cause for my exams was met with disinterest and a distinct lack of compassion: I was told that if my grade was lower than predicted, I would be forced to resit the exam in August to help boost the department’s results. According to The Guardian, 33% of bereaved individuals experience a depressive episode one month following their loss, with 15% still struggling with depression a year later. In light of these statistics, the lack of support from the university for its most vulnerable students is disgraceful.
After a summer of working as much as possible, clearing the house and trying to learn my new normal, I returned to university in September. Empty would be the only word to describe how I felt. I moved to Glasgow, joined societies, went to the library, made new friends, and started swimming, but everything felt like I was going through the motions. There was nothing more there, just someone trying to pretend to be a “normal” student. The reality of being a carer, commuting to university, holding down a job, volunteering, and maintaining a social life and relationship was that I did not have any free time for over a year. And then I moved to Glasgow, and suddenly I had all the time in the world. I am sure my friends noticed me retreating into myself as the year progressed. My grades slipped, and if I wasn’t in class or at work, I was in bed. Truthfully I have almost no memories of my second year, bar some questionable decisions and a lot of late-night pre-exam cramming. My relationship crumbled, my friends stopped inviting me out, and I just didn’t have the energy to care. No matter where I was, I felt guilty: guilty that I wasn’t supporting my dad, wasn’t with my grandparents, wasn’t at work, wasn’t in the library. I was totally lost in my own world of grief, and I felt so alone. Grief affects everyone differently: you miss the person, but you also miss the life you had and the person you were with them. My mum is the greatest person I have ever known, and whilst the thought that I was her legacy brought me comfort, I felt wholly inadequate.
To say I scraped through my exams would be an understatement. That I had performed better in a first-year exam spent terrified that my mum would die whilst I was writing about the Norman Conquest than I had in second year was a rude awakening. University felt so insignificant. Something that surprised me was just how much grief truly affects every aspect of people’s lives. I found that my memory and concentration suffered greatly. The interest I used to have in my subject wavered. My hobbies no longer brought me joy. And I missed my mum with every waking moment.
I wish I could tell you there was some magic fix – all solutions to dealing with grief. But everyone is different, and as cliche, as it sounds, time is the greatest healer. Life carrying on around you when it feels like everything in your sphere of existence has stopped is challenging – but I found trying to catch back up even harder. I learnt that the people around you do care, but they don’t necessarily know how to help. Gradually the pain starts to dull; it becomes something that flares up instead of a constant ache. You start to make new memories, and slowly, you start to be able to look in the mirror and recognise the person looking back at you. At my lowest, I was desperate to return to the person I was before I lost my mum. With the benefit of hindsight, I now know that that version of me died with my mum. Who I am now will carry the burden of grief with me forever. But it has made me more compassionate, more resilient and has taught me that if I can survive this, I can survive anything.
In the words of Genesis’s “Duchess”, “she battled through”. If I can give just one piece of advice to anyone experiencing grief, it would be to just keep going. The sun will continue to rise, and joy will return to your life. You will never forget those you have lost, but no one would want you to give up your life too.