Wednesday 24 June 2020

Losing a Parent During Your Studies

Jess shares her experience with loss and grief and her tips for taking care of yourself when university pressure looms.
-  Jess Said

I was that girl in the third year: the girl who stopped showing up; the girl who was somehow still on the course even though I was never there; the girl who had just lost her mum. At first I stopped going because my grief weighed me down, but later on, I stopped going because I couldn’t stand the pity on people’s faces when they found out what had happened.

University wasn’t an easy ride, even at the beginning. Six months into my first year we were sat in a hospital cubicle hearing the C word. ‘Are you scared?’ I asked her when no one else was listening. ‘Of cancer? No. I’m only scared of hurting you.’ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about the look on her face when she told me what was wrong with her. It was the first time I realised what it means to be a mother – she took every needle, every test, every bag of poison they pumped into her like a champion. Not because she was scared of dying, but because she wanted to see me grow up, because she didn’t want to leave me.

I helped her wash her lovely dark hair until it fell out, then I helped her pick out headscarves and bandanas. I cried when she didn’t eat, and I cried every time I had to leave her behind at the hospital. I laughed with her when we had nothing to laugh about. I drank mulled wine with her in the Sleigh Bar on our last Christmas together in 2016. I was devastated when she died. I’d tried to prepare myself the best I could, but it hurt in an entirely different way than I expected it to.

If you’ve lost a loved one, either while you’re still studying, or before/after, please ask people for help – it doesn’t matter who. I was so lucky that I had brilliant support – to this day I’m still in regular contact with one of my lecturers from my undergrad. She always took the time to ask if I was okay and offered to stay after lectures with me to talk through things that I didn’t understand properly. She told me what help the university could offer me and told me how to get extensions on my assignments.

You don’t have to be okay overnight. It took me months to even process what had happened. There’s no shame in asking for help or admitting that you’re finding things difficult. Even now, three years later, I still need a few days away from everything sometimes to get myself out of a dark patch. University is hard enough without personal problems, so ask for extensions on deadlines and exams, ask for more one to one tutorials rather than working in groups, let people know you’re not doing great and ask if you can work from home sometimes.

Don’t forget to get out into the fresh air. All I wanted to do for the first year was curl up in bed on my own, but I made myself go for walks and do things I love (reading in the garden, writing soppy poetry, baking brownies). I quickly found that staring at the same four walls for days on end makes you feel worse, not better.

How can you help a friend who has lost a parent? Don’t tell them it’ll be okay, because in that moment it feels like nothing will ever be okay again, and they’re less likely to tell you when they’re not doing too great next time. Do ask them what they’re thinking, if they want to talk about the person they’ve lost, if there’s anything you can do to help (i.e. going with them to do the food shop, helping them cook and clean etc).

And lastly, a tip for those who aren’t sure how to act around someone who has just lost a loved one (in this case, their mother): they won’t spontaneously combust if you mention your mum just because theirs died. You don’t need to avoid having discussions about your or their mums. In fact, these conversations are great! I love talking about my mum – she was amazing, and I’ll say that to anyone who will listen. What I don’t love is pretending that she never existed just so you don’t feel awkward. Suzie was amazing, and everything I am today is because of her.

If you, or someone you know, have been experiencing grief after bereavement or loss, the following organisations and resources may be able to help: NHS Get HelpCruse Bereavement CareHope AgainThe Bereavement Trust; Let's Talk about Loss.  

Student Minds share more information and resources on how to look after your wellbeing, how to get support and support your loved ones. 

I’m a BA (Hons) Journalism and MA Creative Writing graduate from Sheffield Hallam University. I’m choosing to share my experience with grief whilst studying as there were limited resources when I was looking for help in 2017. Hopefully, my story will make you feel less isolated and give you some tips on how to cope with your loss.

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