At a time of year when many young people are caught up in the nervous excitement of going to university, the UK’s first youth bereavement charity, Winston’s Wish, understands that for many grieving young people, leaving home to study can present a real challenge.
in a recent episode of the Winston’s Wish Grief in Common podcast series, West Sussex-based Abigail shared her experience with bereavement at the age of 13 when her elder sister died from suicide and how it affected her when she went to university.
Abigail, now aged 19, commented: “I was in secondary school at the time she passed, and it was a whole whirlwind of emotions of not really knowing how I felt. And then the grief…I didn’t really feel that up until I moved to university, and I was away from home. So, suddenly, it feels like I’m grieving all over again because I’ve now realised how far away from home I am and it was just learning how to deal with it again.
“I probably thought it was a really straightforward process of I’m going to be sad and then I’ll get over it. People describe grief as like coming and going in waves and you feel all the emotions, at whatever time. There is no order.”
Supporting bereaved young people
Winston’s Wish has been supporting children and young adults up to the age of 25, and the adults assisting them, for more than 30 years. Estimates suggest that, each day, more than 100 young people in the UK are bereaved of a parent. But that figure doesn’t equate to how many young people are coping with the death of a sibling, grandparent, friend or another significant individual in their lives.
Winston’s Wish emphasises that many grieving youngsters have the particular challenge of being away from home and their support networks when they attend university. Additionally, if the young person was bereaved when they were younger, like Abigail was, these milestones can trigger the grief in a new way. It’s a reminder that their special person isn’t there to see them receive their results, get a place at university, or help them move into student halls.
Difficulties coping with bereavement
As well as dealing with the difficulties that arise when coping with a bereavement, grief can also have a profound effect on a young person’s ability to study. It can be difficult to focus or keep up with studies or to have the motivation to keep pace with the academic pressures of exams, essays, dissertations, seminars, lectures and lots of deadlines.
Even seemingly simple interactions with new people can lead to difficult conversations, as Abigail explained: “I still struggle with the question of ‘How many siblings do you have?’ Obviously at university you’re meeting so many new people and everyone’s trying to get to know everyone so it’s always a question that comes up. All my flatmates and my mates know and they’re absolutely lovely about it.”
Exploring support at different points of grief
Abigail suggests that it is beneficial to keep the conversation open regarding what support is required at different points of grief. She commented: “If I was giving advice to my younger self, it would be to talk more. Early on, some will try to force on counselling, therapy and whatever to try and help you at the start. But for me it didn’t work. I tried therapists and counsellors and I think I cancelled all of them. For a couple of years after that I always had the mindset of ‘It’s not worth it. Don’t try it.’ Now, I feel like it could be something that would be beneficial.
“When I go back to university, I would be open to the idea if someone mentioned, ‘Oh, maybe you should talk to someone.’ And I’d be like, ‘Yes, I think I can have a conversation about it.’ Don’t be put off, if one method of help doesn’t work for you, or if you don’t feel like it’s the right time to talk about it, don’t force it.”
Abigail continued: “I think it’s important to be talking about my sister more, and now that I’m away, bringing up my sister in conversation with my parents back home and trying to keep a part of her where I am because I’m moving on in my life. I’m getting older and I feel like I’m getting closer and closer to the age that she was when she passed, so I am trying to keep a part of her with me. I think it’s just important to me to allow myself to feel my grief whilst I’m at university.”
Grief in Common podcast
The Grief in Common podcast is run by the Winston’s Wish youth team and can be found on major platforms. The topics of conversation aim to provide comfort and make a difference to other grieving young people over the age of 13. Abigail’s experience can be viewed in the ‘Grief and University’ episode.
Winston’s Wish believes that no young person should be left to grieve alone. With the right support at the right time, the charity is convinced that these young people can go on to lead full and flourishing lives.
Winston’s Wish is keen to reassure young people and their families that they are welcome to chat online, email or call for free to speak to a bereavement support worker by calling 08088 020 021, emailing [email protected] or using the live chat at winstonswish.org. Free resources such as the Grief in Common podcast series and online articles and advice are also available on the website.