There’s never a good time to experience a bereavement, but it can be particularly difficult if you are going to or already at university. Whether your special person died recently or not, coping with grief at university is tough.
If you live on campus, you are away from home and your usual support networks. You have to adapt to living away, make new friends and deal with the pressure of exams and dissertations, all while grieving.
If you were bereaved when you were younger, milestones like going to university can trigger your grief. It’s a reminder that your special person isn’t there to see you get your results, get a place at university and help you move into student halls.
Here are some of the reasons why grieving at university is difficult and ways to cope. Thank you to Angus for sharing his experience of grieving at university and advice for others.
Why might grieving at university be difficult?
1. You are away from home
If you live on campus, you might be away from home for the first time, and away from your family, old friends and support networks. All the people who know you well, can spot when you’re struggling and would usually help you cope.
You might feel guilty about being away from home, worried about those who are left behind and feel like you should be with them as you all grieve. Maybe you have to travel back often to attend a funeral or memorial service, be with your family on anniversaries or to support those at home.
“In the corner of my bedroom, on top of a chest of drawers which sat underneath a skylight, I had the order of service from my mum’s funeral. Next to it was a peace lily which my friend had bought me, and some room spray Mum had gifted me from Morocco. Call it what you want – shrine, memorial, grave – it’s not important. But what it offered me, was a moment to think about Mum, uninterrupted.”Angus
2. You are dealing with academic pressure
Grief can affect your ability to study. You might find it hard to focus or keep up with studies the way you previously have. Or you might find it hard to motivate yourself – studying might seem trivial after experiencing a bereavement.
University comes with lots of academic pressure – exams, essays, dissertations, seminars, lectures and lots of deadlines. You might also find that you have to return home for a while or take some time out and miss lectures and deadlines. It’s perfectly normal to struggle with your workload and feel overwhelmed.
3. You are meeting lots of new people
Going to university, meeting lots of new people and having to make new friends can be daunting, especially if you’re worried about having to tell people about your bereavement. You might not feel comfortable opening up to people you don’t know that well. Some people can be awkward when talking about death and not know what to say, but most people will want to support you.
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Ways to cope with grief at university
1. Talk about it
Although it can be scary talking about your emotions, bottling up your feelings can make them feel unmanageable. Find someone you can talk to at university. It could be a friend, a housemate, a tutor, a counsellor or mentor.
Also keep in touch regularly with friends and family back home. Maybe you could plan a regular call or Facetime and visits back home or they could come and visit you at university.
2. Find ways to express and cope with your feelings
There is no right or wrong way to feel and those who are grieving can feel all kinds of emotions – sad, angry, confused, worried, numb and many others. You might also experience difficulties sleeping and changes to your eating habits.
Find a way to let out your feelings. You could write them down in a journal or draw them in a sketchbook. You could do exercise or talk to someone. Maybe, play or listen to music or watch a film or TV show and have a good cry or laugh. Whatever works for you.
“You’ve been dealt this hand, and, unfortunately, you need to manage it. That work includes trying out various bereavement management methods and figuring out which of them work for you. Other mechanisms may involve exercise or creative outputs, such as producing visual art or poetry.”Angus
3. Ask for help from your tutors
Your tutors want you to do well at university and they will be able to help you. Speak to them about your situation, let them know if you need to miss things to go home or are struggling to keep up with your studies.
They can help you to catch up with missed lectures or seminars, give you extensions on deadlines and help you manage your workload if you are struggling. If you need to, you can defer your studies for a while and your tutor can help you with the paperwork. Don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help.
4. Look after yourself
Remember to look after yourself and practise self-care. This could be doing exercise, socialising with friends, eating healthily, taking regular breaks from studying or calling your family back home. If you are struggling, then take some time out or defer a year. This doesn’t mean you’ve failed, instead that you’re acknowledging that you may perform better if you take a break.
There’s nothing wrong with having fun when you’ve been bereaved, you don’t have to be sad all the time. So, if you want to, go out and have fun, join a club or society, try a new sport or activity. However, don’t be afraid to say no. Don’t feel compelled to go out or do things if you would prefer not to.
Try not to be hard on yourself. University is tough enough, let alone if you have been bereaved – you are doing amazingly!
5. Seek professional help
We all need a bit of help sometimes, so don’t be afraid to ask for it. Specialist grief charities like Winston’s Wish offer one-to-one and group support sessions. We also have lots of online resources and a Helpline and email service where you can talk to bereavement professionals. You can call us on 08088 020 021 (open 8am-8pm, Monday to Friday) or email email@example.com
Your university will also have professionals you can talk to. Depending on your university, this could be a student welfare or wellbeing services team or a mental health advisor. Also look out for peer-to-peer support groups at your university.
If you need urgent support in a crisis, you can contact the Winston’s Wish Crisis Messenger by texting WW to 85258 or calling the Samaritans on 116 123. Both are available 24/7.