Experiencing the loss of a loved one at University: A personal journey

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Zainab Ahmed
Member since June 16, 2017
  • 1 Post
  • Age 21

My first week at University (and many, many weeks after that) was nightmarish. I lost my father the day before I was due to arrive, so I arrived half a week later confused and full of grief. I still have difficulty articulating the words to express the disparity between the reality I had to face then, and the seemingly normal world around me.

I was acutely aware how tough things were going to be, beginning my first year at a big University, far away from home, and having lost someone incredibly close to me. Quickly, the expectations of a typical University life flew away (though of course, this becomes one of your lesser concerns) and at times, it felt like life was playing a cruel joke and you've suddenly become the punchline. But death is often unexpected, it can arrive at any moment, and whilst nothing can ever prepare you for it, there is no other option but to work through the grief, and all its ugly cousins who have now happily taken space in your mind; like unwanted, bumbling party guests.

Telling people about my loss was one of the first things I wanted to do, alongside shutting myself away completely. I quickly learnt, however, telling people that my father had just died wasn't exactly dinner table conversation. Nobody particularly wants to hear about the dead when they're too busy living-and I completely understand that. But at a time when I wanted to scream it from the rooftops, when I couldn't understand why everybody else was still moving on, blurting it out to people (often at socially unconventional times) seemed to make the most sense to me.

To this day, I still sometimes make the mistake of using the present term instead of the past, and sometimes the other person might pick up on the past tense and inquire "what do you mean by 'used' to?" At first it used to make me anxious, but now I'm thankful when people ask, because it doesn't feel like I'm hiding a huge part of my life anymore.

Some people don't know what to say though, particularly those who haven't experienced bereavement, and however well-intentioned, words that are meant to be comforting can have the opposite effect. I think, more often than not, silence is enough, a loving and understanding presence is more than enough, just somebody who is willing to be there is enough.

Generally, grief, and mental health as a whole for that matter, aren't topics for popular discussion. It's quite normal to brush uncomfortable topics under the carpet, particularly that of death, because nobody quite knows what to say and because it is also a stark reminder of our own mortality. And as a person of colour, being open about mental health is more of a difficulty at times, due to cultural shame and stigma. Often mental health is considered to be a 'white people's problem' when of course, it affects everybody, regardless of race, gender or creed.

And sadly, it is easy, to fall silent when we live in a society that values self-sufficiency which galvanises the false idea that not being able to take care of yourself, alone, is a weakness. We are constantly told to 'keep calm and carry on', as if 'the stiff upper lip' is a sign of unadulterated bravery, but we aren't told that to face our demons we have to risk exposing them too. And this, perhaps, is the most difficult task - shedding the mask we have carefully painted to be comfortable with the person beneath, or rather, the person we are forced to become as a result of grief.

But you are not alone, grief is a universal experience, and there are support groups, counselling services and workshops at University to help facilitate the healing process. Different things work for different people, and I am still in the process of figuring what exactly works for me, but I've found, without a hand or two, to help you out of the darkness, you can find yourself in a deep rabbit hole. Although, I think trying to navigate through the rabbit hole of grief, and the bouts of depression that may come with it, can help you to create the rungs of a ladder that help you to climb out.

Of course these are awful experiences, and demand an emotional capacity that is beyond what is humanly possible sometimes, but I think they can also teach us what works best for us in regaining some sense of okayness. Whether that be carving out time to grieve, talking to friends, frequenting support groups, going to counselling or knitting your time away - anything that helps you feel better will form the rungs of the ladder that will slowly bring you back to a sense of okayness and safety.

Allowing yourself to break too and feel the undulations of grief as they come can help move the process along, I've found. It's a lot easier said than done when it feels like the demands of life are overwhelming, but when a big part of your life has gone, it only makes sense to carve out some time to allow yourself to adjust to a new normal. And I think this truly is a lifelong journey, you can never really be 'there' and things may never ever be 'normal' and 'okay' but I would like to think that someday a sense of peace will be easier to find and life will feel full(er) again -

One day.

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