My two remaining grandparents both passed away during my final year of university. My granddad at the very start, in October, my grandma at the very end, in June.
It was the first time in my adult life that I really experienced loss.
It was a shock to my system. My family lives in Germany, I studied in Bath, so both times I found out through a phone call. Neither death was particularly surprising – both my grandparents were ill for a long time – but I’d never really entertained thoughts about it. Sure, I’d gotten sad for a few days when their conditions had worsened, but then I’d put it to the back of my head again. I’d put up a huge wall, but with that one phone call it came crashing down. I didn’t know what to do.
My initial reaction was calling all my friends, getting someone to come over, and lying in bed all day. Then eating a lot of Chinese takeaway. The next day: going to watch a rugby game followed by a night out. Then, I panicked. This wasn’t what I was meant to do – surely, sitting alone in my room feeling sad for a few days and then moving on with life was more appropriate?
But here’s the thing I (eventually) realised about grief: there are no rules. Especially not when you’re experiencing it for the first time and you’re at university. Because then you don’t have the support system of your family, no one in your environment will have known the person who passed away, you probably don’t have a strict, stable routine. And, even if you do, it’s all too easy to break it.
I started Googling advice, reading up on the stages of grief, but none of it really made sense to me. It didn’t seem to fit in with my university life of lectures, writing my dissertation, friends, nights out and work. Everything seemed to be aimed at either making children understand death or helping adults manage their normal life whilst grieving. But as a student, I didn’t have a normal life anymore. After telling my lecturers, they allowed me to miss classes, making it easy to sit at home and watch Netflix all day, go see friends in the evening and forget about mealtimes. All whilst not doing any processing whatsoever.
I eventually convinced myself I was fine, went back to lectures, back to work, back to the gym. I ignored my incredibly short attention span, my unfocused mind, my inability to take in information. I thought I didn’t need help anymore, told myself I was all good. Until I had to submit coursework and got incredibly stressed by it. Which, looking back, I could have very easily avoided by asking for extensions.
I hadn’t though, because I always thought there were other people who were worse off. I assumed I was the issue for not dealing so well. Growing up, going to someone’s funeral was something you said to get out of school early or miss a day because you were going on holiday before term ended. Similar to someone’s milestone birthday or a wedding. It made it seem so harmless, so casual. And whilst it is a normal part of life, it is certainly not a small part of life.
All the online reading seemed to assume I knew this. Blogs and top-tips lists were based on the idea that me and my friends understood how grief works, that death is natural, but horrible, that we knew how to cope or help others cope. But no one really did. At university, a lot of people have never experienced grief before. They might have seen it affect their parents or friends, but not felt it themselves. So no, university students might not understand how fundamentally death can impact your life. At that age, it often isn’t part of life yet. Everything is still about boxing away sad thoughts and focusing on having the time of your life. When that stops working, there is nothing but question marks.
Between the lack of routine and the lack of understanding, Google’s advice was pretty useless. I was more or less on my own. Or at least felt like it. After the first period of pretending to myself and the rest of the world that I was fine, I learnt some key things.
Talking about how you’re doing and asking for help is the most important thing. You are allowed to lean on other people, whether that’s friends, family or someone external. Friends will be great for support and distraction, both of which are equally valid. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – there is no need to sit at home alone feeling sad the whole time, just as there is no need to be out partying every night. Do whatever makes you feel better in the moment, but try and make sure it won’t mess with you down the line.
Talking to personal tutors, lecturers or student services can also be incredibly helpful. There are so many resources that you can use at university, so use them. Your problem is not too small or irrelevant – if it is affecting you or your studies negatively at all, then it is their job to help you. Especially when it comes to reflecting on what happened and finding ways to manage your feelings alongside your life, advice from adults or professionals can be key.
To be able to talk about what is going on, you have to start processing and understanding in private. Allow yourself to feel all the overwhelming, new feelings, sit with them and give yourself the space to reflect and react. This might be one of the hardest parts, but it is so important in order to move forward. How you do this is again up to you – journaling, looking at pictures, getting creative and writing stories or drawing, meditation – whatever feels right to you.
The (almost) last thing I will say is try to make sure you are fulfilling your basic needs – showering, getting dressed, eating food. These things fall away easily, but keeping them up will give you a sense of normality, give you energy and are a form of self-love. Adapt them as needed – showering might turn into a bubble bath, eating might include a lot of Deliveroo. But if it helps, go for it. Make your wellbeing your top priority and do whatever you have to do to make yourself feel that tiny bit better. Eventually, you’ll feel a lot better for it.
Most importantly though, forget about all the self-help guides. They aren’t an instruction manual and they might just not fit in with your life. That’s okay. As with almost everything, everyone has their own way of dealing with life. And that is for you to figure out. It will take time to find the right balance between friends, family, wellbeing staff, partying, watching Netflix, exercising, eating and so on. But once you’ve done it, everything will be a little bit easier. And you’ll be stronger for it.
Words by Sophie Kiderlin
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