The University of Grief: the impact of bereavement by suicide on a young person starting a new chapter in their life

Suicide. It is a huge word that has so many different meanings, different viewpoints and different attitudes. There is a huge stigma to the word too. People always feel uncomfortable to say it. And that’s understandable. That one seven-letter word can be the heaviest weight to someone who is bereaved by it…

It has been over two years for me now, since my father sadly left this world back in February 2018. I was nineteen years old back then, and still so young. Initially, as most people affected by bereavement feel, I didn’t know how to feel. I didn’t know how to react. I didn’t know how to function. The best word to describe is numb. So many thoughts were racing through my head. When I first found out, I didn’t know what to do. You would expect me to be crying. But that didn’t happen for me. Instead, I just felt numb. Lifeless. And most importantly – lost. Lost because, how am I supposed to navigate the world around me when a piece of my life who has been present ever since the day I was born, has been taken?

It felt like the loss of my father came at one of the biggest moments in my life. Just three months after his death, I found myself sitting my A-Level exams with a place at university on the line. I was studying non-stop, and I like to think that the pain made me use my study as a distraction. In retrospect, it seems crazy how I managed to juggle losing my dad to suicide – all those emotions, thoughts and confusion – and studying for exams that would literally determine which university I would attend. On top of that, I was also working at my part-time job, as well as contending with all the other issues that a typical 19-year-old boy has to deal with. It all seems overwhelming. Overwhelming doesn’t even feel like the right word – it’s exhausting. Draining. Scary. Uncertain.

Losing your parent at such a young age is something that nobody should ever, ever have to experience. But in September – 7 months after my dad’s death – an even bigger life change was impending. I was starting university and living away from my family for the first time in my life. Studying at university is always something I have wanted to do, and my dad supported my ambitions. There is so much support out there for people who are affected by suicide – The Tomorrow Project is a fantastic example – but it is difficult to find somebody who is in the exact same circumstances as me. Living and studying at a new place, in a new city, and knowing nobody at all. It was a lot to deal with.

There’s a lot of uncovered ground and unchartered territory, when it comes to the effects of bereavement on education. But when you throw bereavement by suicide into that, things get even more difficult. My first month at university was, admittedly, a good one. I had managed to gain new social connections and had the time of my life during the infamous fresher’s week. All of this juxtaposed with the feelings of grief and loneliness I was experiencing at the same time. However, a few months down the line and things had changed drastically.

I had made some friends during the first few weeks at university and felt like I was having fun. I was for sure living the typical student experience. However, these ‘friends’ I had made soon started to drift away from me with no reason. And that is when everything turned sour. I felt so alone and unwanted, when my messages to meet up were met with an excuse, or sometimes even a lack of response. I really thought these people were my friends, and we were going to experience the rest of our university lives together. That was far from the truth. This led me into a downward spiral, and I felt so unmotivated to even study for my course. This obviously had a drastic effect on my academic life, because I was not achieving the grades I should have if I reached my full potential. I didn’t make any social effort, and I didn’t join any societies. I was always alone in my room. Sometimes, I would cry for hours on end. I felt so alone and worthless, because everybody around me was ‘living their best life’ whilst I was on my own. And being away from my family didn’t help. Some nights, my dad would be on my mind more than other times. And sometimes, the circumstances of his death played heavily on my mind. I had nobody to talk to, and I was so distanced from my family that I really felt all alone in this world. That is a feeling I would never wish on anybody, not even my worst enemy.

When I look back on this, do I have regrets? Of course I do. I wish I had joined more clubs, I wish I didn’t put my trust in those so-called friends, and sometimes I even wish I had decided to take a year out before starting university after everything I had been through. However, one significant thing I wish I had known at the time is the importance to accept and acknowledge your situation. My situation was unique – I was living away from home for the first time at university, so soon after losing my dad to suicide. We still had not had the inquest at this point, and that was also playing on my mind. And I really wish I had took the time to realise this. When I was crying my eyes out and blaming myself for not having any friends, I now realise this wasn’t an abnormal reaction. I had been through a hell of a lot, and it makes perfect sense how I didn’t feel in the most social mood at the time. I had trusted the people who were my friends at the start of university, because I wanted to fit in and have a sense of normalcy. After everything that year, I finally felt like a normal young adult during fresher’s week. I had so many people around me, but now I realise that I still felt alone. Nobody else around me was in my situation. It was always an internal battle as to whether or not I wanted to tell people about losing my dad. In my mind, I thought – will they view me differently? Will they see me as vulnerable? Will they treat me differently and patronise me? I never explicitly told the people around me about it, but most people found out after the date of my dad’s birthday. I had posted a picture of him on my social media in memory alongside a caption, and that’s when people realised. Messages came in, with people saying they were ‘there for me’. But – nobody actually did check up on me, apart from my mum. Nobody asked me, ‘are you okay?’, in the long run. Three small words, which can mean so much.

Fast forward to now, and things are… different. I am still not in the place I want to be, but that’s okay. I’m working towards it. I am now grateful to have actually made a few more friends at university, and my grades have improved. And I’ve also struggled with mental health myself. Which makes me feel almost connected to my dad in a way – I just wish I could have helped him with his mental health issues when he was struggling. Now I understand what it feels like to be in such a low state of mind. I guess the point I’m trying to make is – it is SO important to acknowledge that your situation is different to everyone around you. We are all different, and that’s what makes us so special. I constantly felt, during my first semester, that I needed to be going out every night and making memories to feel normal. But now I realise, things were not ‘normal’ and it is understandable that someone who had just lost their father felt socially distant from others. Now I am able to look back and say – it’s okay. It’s okay that I didn’t have the typical first semester, because my entire situation was far from ordinary. I shouldn’t feel the need to be doing a certain thing and living the typical student life, because my situation is different and that’s okay. In regard to the fear of telling people about how my dad is no longer here – I am now able to speak about it more openly. Life does get better, even when it doesn’t seem like it will. I still have a long way to go, but I am lucky enough to say that I feel like I am working towards recovery. The most important thing is to realise that everyone is different, and everyone has their struggles. As long as you are trying to be the best version of yourself, then that’s all that matters! It doesn’t matter what other people are doing – your own wellbeing is paramount.

S

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