My grandmother died just before I started university; here’s what I’ve learnt about grief
By Ellen Dorrington
No matter how isolated you might feel right now, you're never alone.
Freshers is not something you usually associate with grief. Jager-bombs, flu, awkward nights out - but not grief. But, like many young people over the past few months, I’ve experienced the passing of someone very close to me. I experienced the pain without much closure. But what I’ve realised is that we are never as alone in our grief as we might think. Here’s what I learnt about bereavement from five quarterlifers who similarly experienced the deaths of loved ones during their first years at uni.
According to a recent report, the average age we first suffer a bereavement of someone we are close to is 20. If you add to this, studies that suggest we’re headed for a “grief pandemic” as 9.7 million Brits have been denied the chance to say their last goodbye to loved ones, it paints a pretty bleak picture for many young people. Especially at a time when this year’s freshers intake is grappling with the everyday social isolation of bubbles, virtual lectures and intermittent lockdowns.
My grandmother died four months before I started university. As a child of a single parent, my grandma was like a second parent to me.
She was there for me after school, on weekends, during holidays. I spent a lot of my A-Level years sitting beside her hospital bed watching her fade away. Losing her, to me, felt just like losing a parent. I had the sense that I was totally alone in my grief at the time; I felt I had to suffer in silence.
Little did I realise that, studies show, young people are more likely to bottle up our grief following a bereavement, than any other age group. I started to read more about this and what I learnt inspired me to talk to others in their 20s who were also experiencing grief. This brought to five people who generously shared with me their personal reflections. What I heard helped me reconcile my own feelings. I also hope that, if you’re going through something similar, their words will reassure you too.
Lauren, 24, lost her dad when she was in her first year of uni. For her, the experience had lasting effects: “I got a call two days before my last exam from my mum telling me that he had been taken to hospital and put in end of life care. It was awful having to make the decision between sitting my last exam and going two days early”. She tells me, “I stayed for my exam and got on a train immediately afterwards, whilst my course mates were celebrating”.
Lauren’s experience shows how many people experiencing the death of a loved one at uni feel torn between the pressure to socialise while grappling with the heavy emotional weight of grief. We’re at an age that is supposed to be carefree, sociable and enjoyment-filled.
Excusing ourselves from our social lives following a bereavement can be an incredibly lonely and alienating experience.
Lauren describes her friends’ reactions to her grief, saying that, “after he died, a lot of my home friends didn't know what to say and didn't want to upset me, so they just took a step back from me. No one around me understood and I found it difficult to make new friends because I just couldn't force myself to be happy”. She continues, “I did really well at uni and got First. But I think I was actually just trying to avoid dealing with my grief. I wish I'd taken a year off and just grieved like you're supposed to. It's been four years, but I'm still really affected by it, and I think not dealing with it at the time has left lasting damage”.
Unsurprisingly, forcing yourself to be happy and get on with “normal” life, rather than allowing yourself to process your grief, makes things much worse.
Joe, 20, lost his mum in October last year. He found that clubbing, rather than offering a distraction and time to forget his troubles, left him feeling more vulnerable and broken. “Clubbing is a good way to escape,” he says, “and it gives you a sense of freedom to run away from your problems. But I often found drinking meant I would think about Mum a lot more, which would bring on extreme levels of anxiety. I felt guilty for having fun and being with friends, when I felt I should be grieving”.
Suffering bereavement in your early 20s can make you feel forced to consider staying close to home versus spreading your wings like your friends.
Kaye, 28, has lived at home with her mum since her dad died. She tells me, “my mum is very worried about us moving out and doesn’t want us to, even though she knows we should. She doesn't want to be alone, although she'd never admit it”. Bereavement can bring families closer together as they navigate difficult times, but it can bring added responsibility, as children become carers for ill parents, or they decide to stay, supporting their family through their grief.
“At the same time,” says Kaye, “I don't want to leave either because my dad lived there and I still feel him. Nearly three years down the line we still occasionally think Dad’s going to ring the doorbell. But it’s nice that we still have the connection. I don’t think I'm going to move out for at least five years, I think I need to slowly work up to it. But at the same time, there is the pressure of society thinking that it’s weird to still live at home, and you shouldn't be”.
At a time where young people are supposed to be more independent, and move away from their families, it can be a radical act to go against that expectation and want to stay close. In a decade of freedom, friendship, and exploration, for people who are grieving, this may not be their goal. It might just be to survive instead.
I also learnt that it’s not just moving out that becomes complicated after a bereavement, getting your first graduate job is a major challenge.
When trying to impress in a new job, you may not ask for adequate support or time off, for fear of looking unprofessional. Ben, 24, relays his experience of working after his mum died. “I was working my first full time job in Birmingham, so I was juggling getting to grips with that (and my grief). I didn’t have much support at work so usually bottled anything up. When I drank with friends, I usually suffered a lot. I had several breakdowns and had my close friends sit me down and tell me I needed to get my act together”. He tells me, “I ultimately made the decision to move to London, which I did in January. I’m much more at peace with my mum’s death, and making a lot of steps on a personal level. This has really let me thrive, and talk about it much more openly with people”.
My most important learning of all is that talking about grief is one of the best ways we can feel supported through it.
It’s why organisations like Let’s Talk About Loss have been set up. These social groups for young grievers allow people to meet up and make friends with others who understand what they’re going through. Given only 2% of adults have sought bereavement counselling, groups like this offer support many urgently need.
It’s time we accepted that grief is a formative experience in many young people’s lives that often gets overlooked against a backdrop of socialising, graduating and first jobs. The more we can get comfortable talking about grief, and how death can often touch our lives when we feel most vital and furthest away from it, the easier it will be for us to navigate grief in our twenties.