Grief is so lonely and incredibly overwhelming, and university can enhance these feelings even more, especially during a pandemic. For me, grief was a driving force for me to complete my degree and enjoy my time at university because nothing should be taken for granted; I think 2020 has cemented this for all of us.

During my first year at university, I lost my dad. I had just arrived in this new city, with new people, away from home, and this was the first time I had to fend for myself. It is a daunting and lonely experience without having to deal with grief on top of it all.  

My dad was unwell before I started university, but it wasn’t until the second semester that things took a turn for the worse. At this point, I knew I had to be at home with my family; I had never experienced any real loss before and I had no idea how to process these emotions—I mean, does anyone ever know how?

Olivia with her dad. Photo provided by the author

After some time at home, I knew I had to return to the life I was building for myself, the one I knew my dad wanted me to thrive in. So, I made the decision to head back to Sheffield for my second year.

Returning to university after my dad passed away was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I felt as if a piece of me was missing. My confidence plummeted, especially academically, and I had never felt so alone, but I was determined to complete my degree. 

Being away from home and my family when they needed me most and when I needed them most was extremely difficult. I started to question everything.  Do I push through the struggle and complete my degree? Or do I go home and be with my family? 

These questions stayed with me throughout my undergraduate degree, and not a day went by when I didn’t feel guilty for being away from them, but sometimes you must do what is right for you. At the end of the day, it was my life and I had worked so hard to get into university; I couldn’t let that go to waste.  

Once I had decided to carry on, I focused on processing my grief and learning to understand that it was now part of my life. 

Sheffield is an amazing city and I was having the most incredible time; I had met brilliant people who were so inspiring and I couldn’t let all of that go. I knew that returning would be good for me. I channelled my grief into my degree, and I was determined to succeed.

I am not going to pretend it was an easy return because, believe me, every day was a challenge.

Music played a big part in helping me to understand my grief, and in remembering my dad. I would blast out his favourite songs and cry until there were no tears left, but similarly I would dance my heart out to them as well— who doesn’t love a bit of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Rock Your Body’? (That was my dad’s funeral song and yes, it did play in church, and yes we did all have a great laugh about it). 

I began to remember all the happy times I had spent with my dad, and I knew that he would always be a part of me, wherever I was. I didn’t need to be at home to feel close to him. 

Talk. 
Talk about how you’re feeling. Make people in your life aware about what you are going through: communication is key. Even though nothing anyone can say will take away what you are feeling, just talking to people will feel like a weight has been lifted.  

Cry.
Or don’t cry, there is no right way to let it out. I am someone that struggles to cry in front of people, especially my friends, but you should not be embarrassed about expressing your emotions. On the other hand, not everyone cries; some people explain the feeling of grief as numbness. Grief is a journey and the way you express it is personal to you; there is no right way to react. 

Everyone handles grief differently but the key is to not let it define you. For a long time I felt that it was all that people saw when they looked at me. It felt as if my grief was being emitted from every part of my body and that I couldn’t possibly be anything more. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Focus on yourself, and do things that allow you to express your grief in the way that is right for you. 

Losing my dad made me realise that anything can happen and your life may not always go the way you planned it. Unfortunately, grief is something that we all experience at some point in our lives, and just when you think you have managed to fit it into your life, something else may go wrong. 

This summer I lost my mum. I could not believe this was my life. How had I lost both of my parents by the age of 21? But like I said, life doesn’t always go as planned. Again, all of these feelings came rushing back; it never gets easier, and it probably never will. 

Olivia with her mum. Photo provided by the author

My confidence dropped, just like before, and I felt like even more of me was missing. But, just as when I lost my dad, I decided to go back to university. 

The last thing I told my mum was that I had got onto my masters course and I knew how much she wanted me to achieve my goals. I have found studying to be a brilliant way to channel my grief; I know this will not be for everyone, but it is important to find what helps you. 

I will forever want to make my parents proud and I know that doesn’t always mean achieving perfect success, but it does mean doing what is right for me. 
 
Being away from home gave me the space I needed to deal with my own grief and to not feel responsible for everyone around me. I was able to support my family much better after I had found my own way of coping and sometimes you need distance to do that. 

Continuing with my studies may have been the hardest decision I have ever had to make, but it is a decision I have made twice, and it has been the best thing I have ever done in terms of coping with my grief.

If you are struggling with bereavement, please visit https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/ssid/sos/coping-with-bereavement for a range of resources and support available to students experiencing grief.

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