Grieving at university
It’s that time of year again! Whether you’re heading back to university for another year, or starting your first, it can be an exciting and equally overwhelming time. New city, new friends, new bedroom, new support network.
We recently interviewed Sam Jones on our podcast; Sam’s mum died four months before he started university. He spoke about navigating those first few weeks at uni after it happened. He said in his interview ‘grieving wasn’t a thing’, it’s easy to think you’re just expected to just get on with it. He spoke about how it wasn’t something that you could bring up in conversation when you first meet people, like ‘Hi, I’m Sam, my mum died four months ago’ (I mean, how great would it be to be able to do that!). But it’s a tender subject and a tender time. He was lucky enough to find an ally in his mate Tom, who had also lost his mum. They would rarely speak about it in depth sober, but would have a mutual respect and bond that would let each other know they were not alone.
Sam’s experience is different to mine and Kat’s, in that it happened to us whilst we were in the middle of our time at university, and so everybody knew. Kat has spoken in another podcast episode about her worries of being known as ‘the girl with the dead mum’.
University is hard enough without the added difficulty of grieving (thanks, universe!).
Trying to meet new people, make new friends, go to lectures, stay enthusiastic about your course, go on nights out, join societies, cook for yourself, keep you flat clean (or not). There is so much to think about that ‘grieving’ doesn’t come close to the top of the priorities.
We definitely don’t have all the answers. There’s no rule book. And everyone’s experience is different. Either way, here’s some things we learnt from being in the Dead Parent Club at university.
TALK ABOUT IT
Whilst the ‘tell us a fun fact about yourself’ segment of freshers week might not be the best way to tell everyone you’ve got a dead parent (or it might be for you), make sure to tell people around you. Even if it’s by sneaking it into conversations, or always speaking about them in the past tense. Your flatmates, for example, are bound to find out sooner or later, and you’ll get much more out of telling them sooner. You never know who around you may be going through a similar thing; both me (Sam) and Kat wouldn’t have known each other were going through the same thing if we didn’t tell anyone about it. It’s amazing the number of people that will reach out. Remember, the DPC gets you through.
Equally, be prepared for people to not understand. It’s so hard to empathise if you haven’t been in that situation yourself. Therefore, it’s important that we (the DPC) understand that not everyone will get it. Not everyone will understand how we’re feeling. Not everyone will accept the dead parent card as an excuse not to go out..
THE DEAD PARENT CARD
Remember you can play the dead parent card, but don’t take the piss. There are naturally going to be times when you lose your shit. Particularly if losing your parent is a relatively recent thing.
There is absolutely no excuse for your university not to give you time off if you’re like me and your parent has died during your university years. Don’t stand for anything less. If you’re having difficulty with academic staff (we know that some are robots) try the support staff. All universities should have student support services, and all should have access to counselling services. The staff in this side of the university are likely to be more sympathetic and can help you to speak to your lecturers. Or, as they did for me, they will even speak to your faculty for you. Take advantage of all of these.
SPEAK TO THE STAFF
Speaking to friends and flat mates is key. But they aren’t going to be the ones giving you extensions on your essays (unfortunately). Speak to your uni counsellors. By telling your course coordinators, academic advisors, tutors, whatever they’re called at your uni, it makes it easier to tell them when you’re really struggling. They’re also likely to be able to tell you where you go to for further support. Check out Student Mind’s transition into university guide for advice on approaching staff at university (page 14 to be exact).
It can be difficult to approach or to speak to your peers about your grief sometimes, as it’s easy to feel like a burden. But whilst they won’t feel like that at all, sometimes it’s best just for your own peace of mind to pass that burden on to a professional. Even if you just go for an initial meeting, you’ve literally got nothing to lose. Especially at university. All universities should have a free counselling service – make the most of it.
Societies & Charities
Sooo many societies! Much like deciding which of the identical cutlery drawers to buy in IKEA, it can be a difficult decision deciding which societies to join. The thing is, whichever one you join will be great. Whether it’s a sports society, a gaming society, fashion, music, whatever you’re into. There are also societies that have been set up specifically to support your wellbeing. For example, Student Minds (the UK’s student mental health charity) have societies and support groups in most universities. So keep an eye out for these at your Freshers Fair. Contact details for these groups are on their website.
Don’t drink to escape
Drink to have fun, drink to become a better dancer, but don’t drink to deal with the grief. Take it from two people who’ve been there.. it’s not sensible.
Find your tribe
Don’t waste time with people that don’t want to listen. It’s not good for you. Surround yourself with people who genuinely care. Relationships change when you’re grieving, don’t lose sight of those who will look after you, and most importantly, keep people close that know how to make a good brew.
Acknowledge that it’s shit
We (the DPC) say it all the time; it’s really, really shit.