I HAVE my dad to thank for my Spanish degree. My dad and a suspicious-seeming mustard jar from so-and-so at work.
“You speak Spanish don’t you?” he squinted at me one evening. “Can you translate the ingredients in this? I have no idea what the f*** they are.”
I was 13 at the time, speckled with a fresh flowering of acne, and barely capable of stuttering through the conjugations of ‘tener’. Still, I struggled to say no to things, nay opportunities, of which jabbing at Google Translate seemed as golden as any.
It was a substandard translation I supplied. Partially because of my inability to form a sentence; partially because the mustard, it turned out, was Portuguese. In the grand scheme of things it was barely noteworthy, yet it became a convenient anecdote for the gawping queries of why I studied languages, and thus the memory endured.
Years after that evening, for reasons now forgotten, I asked a Spaniard for the translation of grief. They looked at me, perplexed for a moment, before reeling off a list of – to their mind – synonyms. Pain, bitterness, melancholy, shame… The emotions unfurled on and on. Still, the simple fact loomed unequivocally: grief, as a noun, was untranslatable. As an emotional landscape, however, it was well-chartered and I – now three years on from losing my dad – was torn as to which encapsulation was the more apt.
Grief, as a noun, was unable to be translated
In many ways I’m cheating writing this article. My dad passed away a year before I started at Exeter, four years on from that evening with so-and-so at work, and three years after his first cancer diagnosis. In this new-found realm of Tinder-swiping, binge-drinking, salmonella-riddled adulthood, grief – or, at least, my teenage comprehension of it – seemed starkly out of place. Bereavement, much like my memories of dad, seemed sepia-tinted and antiquated, lost (or so I’d hoped) in the folds of adolescence.
Of course, it doesn’t require an expert to suggest that such an approach was hardly viable. Nor even was it especially helpful. Coming away to university – as many students will testify – is stressful enough as it is. Sprinkle the emotional drain of a bereavement onto a monstrous pile of deadlines, social engagements and overflowing bin bags, and for many the concoction is a rancid one.
“There is an expectation, or at least an association, when you go to university that you are able to live, think and breathe independence,” says second-year student, Scarlett. “For me, there were times when I simply wanted to hug a family member but couldn’t. I think, a lot of the time, when a loved one passes, you seek closure. That is, the knowing. Knowing that you did all that you could and that things will be OK.”
Scarlett had just started her second year when her grandma passed away. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, the illness had severely impacted her ability to speak, move, and carry out day-to-day tasks. After a few years spent bedbound in a home, she passed away in October.
“Talking to my family about how I was feeling really helped. Initially I felt guilty because I could have seen her more, but the distance and changes in my life made that difficult,” says Scarlett.
“Talking about the good times I had spent with her, the memories made, and the fact that she had the best possible send off and funeral we could have given her was really comforting. There are still days when I get upset but I don’t keep it to myself. I’m honest with the very raw and human feelings that I have, and I know that I’m not the only one who has them.”
Bereavement amongst university students is a generally under-represented or even unexplored experience. Statistics from Netdoctor claim that a third of people experience a depressive illness one month after a bereavement, yet it is unknown how many of those are students. The NHS website offers specialist guidance for adults and children coping with grief, yet none for young people. Writing in 2015, one journalist for The Guardian detailed the lack of pastoral support available at UK universities, branding many institutions as ill-equipped to offer specialist guidance.
Bereavement amongst students is generally under-represented
“Bereavement just isn’t something you expect to have to deal with [at university],” they wrote. “Good welfare services are indispensable for students but across the country these are underfunded and oversubscribed. Most universities don’t offer bereavement specific counselling, but instead refer students to outside services, such as Cruse.”
Such is an experience familiar to final-year student Jack who lost a close friend to suicide two years ago. “Slightly strangely, I found out at home and then quickly returned to complete my exams,” he remembers. “For a fair few friends, it affected their academic performance because they wanted to reorganise their exams but were told by their universities’ administration teams that essentially the death wasn’t close enough.”
English student Lucy, meanwhile, was forced to interrupt her time at university following the death of her sister during her second year. At the time she posted on her blog Faraway Lucy: “I’m not trying to narrate a sob story […] but just to record my thoughts. To record how grief affects someone. To document suffering. Because it is cathartic. Because no one’s life is as sparkly and pretty as their Instagram. And if it is, well, you should never take that for granted.”
Two years on, she says she feels “like a completely different person to the person who wrote that piece”.
“I wrote that piece at the height of my grief, in an extremely emotionally vulnerable state,” she says. “Life does get better, but it only got better because I interrupted my time at university.
“I didn’t cope for like a solid year afterwards. I literally couldn’t function and that’s why I had to drop out. I didn’t want to make that decision, and I understand that not everyone can just take a year out to focus on their mental health. But [for me] there was no other option. It was the only way I could heal in my own time because it’s a long horrible process and sometimes you can’t just simply ‘cope’.”
Grief is a sinister shapeshifter and a dark cloud
What advice would she give to those struggling with bereavement? “Have something to get you up in the morning,” Lucy recommends. “Find a hobby you enjoy to keep you going, even if it’s just to get you out of bed and onto the sofa.”
“At the time when it happened, I took on the responsibility for [helping to organise] the memorial service,” says Jack. “This was the easiest way for me to deal with the grief. By being the ‘strong’ one, the ‘organised’ one, the one that could ‘deal with it’, I managed to suppress my real feelings.
“Everyone deals with these kinds of things differently. I hate the idea of being in ‘mourning’ for weeks and months afterwards and would definitely focus on remembering the best bits of the deceased: to celebrate a life rather than to mourn it. That said, I’d like to think that I would put aside a few moments each day – much longer in the early days – to think about what has happened, talk it through with a friend or a family member because you must allow yourself to grieve.”
“I have since learned that grief is a privilege,” agrees Lucy. “I was lucky to love someone enough for their death to tear my world apart.”
“I guess you’re looking for a balance,” concedes Jack. “In order to accept what happens you first have to recognise that it did. Only then can you look beyond that and, in time, move on.”
Grief is a sinister shapeshifter: a dark cloud, my mum would say, that threatens to rain at any moment. Yet, if the clouds thunder so too do they dissipate, mere wisps of wind that unspool themselves from the past: from Dad’s piles of old books, his dusty CDs, and one day, perhaps, from the mustard.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, the following resources are available:
Reed Mews Wellbeing Centre
Cruse Bereavement Care
0808 808 1677