There’s nothing cool about loss: Why grieving at university is such a social dilemma

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In this blog, Grace reflects on her experience of grieving whilst at university. Get in touch to share your own story or advice for others.

An ominous silence filled every crevice of my 19-year old existence, as I sat clutching Dad’s hand and we received the very news we had convinced ourselves would never come. The abstract nature of time came crashing down, as the future of our father-daughter relationship suddenly morphed into a mere 12 months.

The year after I lost my Dad is a blur, as I proceeded to barely exist; living mostly within a repressed recess of my brain. Life, however, doesn’t bow down and offer to stand still for you whilst you grieve – not only was I waking up to the daily silence of not hearing Dad’s voice, but also the realisation that the final year of my undergraduate degree continued to loom ahead of me.

The girl whose Dad just died.

Losing a parent whilst trying to complete a degree inevitably presents itself with extra battles for you to tackle on top of your heartbreak. For example, how to overcome the hours of missed lectures or the inner conflict of wanting to be in two places at once.

Home; a safe haven where the comfort and security of my family allowed me to process my grief with no boundaries, (something which the very limited support resources I found told me was important).

And then University; this idyllic social bubble, where I could immerse myself under the false pretence of still being just a regular third year student. Faced with the fear of not graduating with my friends, I decided to return to university. But really, I wasn’t simply returning as the girl who left; I was returning as the girl who just lost her Dad.

Who wants a sobbing girl at their house party?

I compensated for this new aspect of my identity by always striving to be the most flamboyant version of myself; barely would I be absent from a house party or a night out. On reflection, it was a great way of distracting myself and I look back on that year of my life as holding some of my fondest memories. I was very lucky to have already met my best friends at university before I lost Dad and their support was invaluable.

However, I have come to realise that back then I was suppressing my emotions, in a desperate bid to appear “normal” and save my friends from the all-consuming black hole of my grief. At a time in our lives when we should be our most selfish, I couldn’t help but contemplate how my grief was impacting other people’s university experience…

No place for grief at university

The societal idea of university being “the best three years of your life” doesn’t quite align with being grief-stricken. I believe this notion only forces young people to be even more cautious when speaking of their loss, fuelled by underlying fears of being branded “the party pooper”.

Five years on, there are so many things I wish my 19-year-old self could have understood. The most important being just how OK it is to not always want to be fun, just because you are at university. Life will offer plenty more opportunities to create meaningful memories; there is no need to give into this pressure. It’s of upmost importance to be kind to yourself whilst you are grieving.

You don’t realise how strong you are until you have no option

If you have experienced the loss of a loved one, I urge you to fight any feelings you might have of being ashamed to talk about it. I lived in fear of making others feel uncomfortable, which initially led to my experience being shrouded in loneliness.

Opening up about your vulnerability only makes you feel stronger and more in control. I promise you that discussions about your loss will be met with love and admiration. Learning to speak openly has been the most cathartic process of my grief, but one I am still working on to this day. It is the catalyst I believe we all need; let’s never stop talking about loss.

Grace Lakey