Dealing with the Death of a Loved One whilst at University.

 Wayne ‘Paddy’, Bonnie, Feebi and Bailey. Photo Source: Victoria Brown.

Victoria Brown, Arts & Entertainments Co-Editor.

Being accepted into Queen’s was one of the happiest moments of my life. I have wanted to go to Queen’s since I was five years old and discovered what a university was, and this dream stayed with me for years, right up until I was finally accepted in 2015. Despite struggling, like every student does with stress about assignments, trying to balance a part-time job with my studies, my social life, exercise, and long-term relationship, it has been the happiest few years of my life. Until December 10th 2017.

It was a Sunday, and I was going about my usual Sunday routine; I had just finished off an assignment for English Literature, and I was about to sit down and enjoy a Sunday dinner that I had made for myself. It was late, around 9pm. I had left my phone upstairs, which was unlike me, and I was completely unaware that while I cooked my dinner downstairs I had over 10 missed calls from my family. I had my laptop with me, so I could watch Friends while I cooked. My youngest sister popped up on messenger. Initially I ignored her because I was busy – we had arranged previously to talk that day to organise Christmas presents – but then I heard my partner upstairs yell that my phone wouldn’t stop ringing. I messaged my little sister, telling her to calm down and that I’d call her later. But then she sent: “It’s about Uncle Wayne.” My Uncle Wayne was my mum’s baby brother. He was never just an Uncle to me, my sisters, and my cousins; he was like a big brother. I knew he was over in England so I was worried about what had happened. I rang my mum.

I will never, for as long as I live, forget that phone call. I answered the phone and asked what was wrong. My mum’s voice broke and she asked me if I was sitting down. That’s when I knew. This was not an expected death. My Uncle Wayne was not in ill health. His death is as shocking to me now, two months on, as it was that night. I screamed down the phone, barely able to string a coherent sentence together. I couldn’t breathe and I was shaking so badly I could barely hold the phone.

Death, no matter how, when, or to whom it happens, is never easy. But it is especially difficult while at university. University is a unique experience where we do most of our growing up, and for most of us it is a happy, if eventful, time. You don’t expect to have to go through one of your darkest times while you are in your happiest.

Queen Victoria said that “grief is the price we pay for love,” and I believe that to be true. Grief is strange because it is such an individual experience. Your way of grieving can be completely different from someone else, but that doesn’t make one or the other wrong. It is important to understand that there are different stages to grief. I’m sure you’ve heard them throughout your life, most likely in medical television shows, but a lot of the time they are correct. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Make yourself familiar with these stages, and it may help you in your grieving process (although it is important to remember that these stages don’t necessarily happen in this order, and you may revert back and forth between stages.)

There are several things that I recommend along with understanding these five stages. Accepting your grief and experiencing your grief is a positive step forward. Pretending to lock your feelings away in a special box in your mind will only delay the grief, and it may manifest in unpredictable ways. And I have to stress here to express your emotions in a healthy way. Exercise, for example. There are also self-care activities that you can do: use aromatherapy, spend time with a pet, book a cheap holiday, go to the cinema or a sporting event, yoga and meditation, pray, or something as simple as a bubble bath.

Avoid situations that will trigger you in the early stages, and avoid self-destructive behaviour such as excessive and unsafe amounts of alcohol or drugs. All you’re doing is endangering your own health and possibly your life.

Seek and accept support. It’s clichéd but it’s true: talking helps. Whether that be to your family members and friends. It will depend on your relationship with these people as to who you are most comfortable talking to. If you don’t feel like you can talk to people close to you, you can turn to religious figures, whether you have faith or not. If you reach a stage where you feel like you cannot talk to them, you can contact counsellors. You can tell your family and friends or you can keep it to yourself. There is no shame in seeking professional help. Queen’s offer a counselling service that is free for students, and they also have a student-run nightline phone service for students to talk when they need to. There are also local charities such as Cruse available.

If you feel unable to talk to people at any stage but still wish to express yourself, you can write down your feelings or record yourself saying them. No-one need ever hear them but you and you can always delete them if you want.

Do not ignore your body. Grief can be strange in that it doesn’t always manifest itself emotionally right away. Your body can tell you things you aren’t even aware of. If you’re having trouble sleeping or eating, if you’re experiencing headaches or consistent pains, that is your body’s way of physically grieving and it should not be ignored. If you’re concerned about health issues you can always consult your doctors, whether that be with a family member or friend’s support, or privately.

Your assignments may suffer, as you are in a difficult head space. Talk to your lecturers and your tutors; they are not monsters who only care about your grade, they care about you. Remember that you can always re-sit. Do not stress yourself unnecessarily over university assignments – they are not the most important thing at this time. It would also be beneficial to familiarise yourself with Queens’ procedure for a close death that may affect your ability to hand in an assignment on time (I know this from experience.)

Grief can last a long time, and it can be triggered by random events. For me, it’s snow. The night my Uncle died it was snowing and now whenever it snows that is always in my head. But that’s okay. Because when he is in my head I’m not just thinking about the fact that he’s no longer here, but I am thinking about all the memories I shared with him. I’m thinking of all the photographs we have of him, of the people who he lives on through, of the laughs we had. Your memories are a precious thing that cannot be taken away from you.

It’s clichéd but your loved one would not want you to suffer. Remember this when it gets difficult. There will be good days and bad days, and they’re both okay. You should not feel guilty when you have a good day, or awful when you have a bad day. They are all part of grieving, and they’re perfectly normal. It takes a lot of courage to accept your grief and to do what works for you in your own individual grieving process, and it’s easier to do than you think.

There is an enormous support network available to you so don’t be afraid to reach out.

Bereavement help:

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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