I remember dreaming of university as a 16-year-old. I received excellent GCSE results and all I could think about was going to college, smashing my A levels, and then attending a Russell Group university and “living the dream”. I had planned to study outside London, and I was excited to move away. I had imagined that I would call my mum every week, and video call my brother, and have the best years of my life.
However, a horror story was unfolding that I simply could not ignore. My mum was extremely unwell, having been diagnosed with cancer. It was not the first time that she had been diagnosed – each diagnosis had come with pain, but she had always recovered.
This time was different. I remember being anxious, as the doctors only seemed to discuss containment, rather than hoping for recovery.
Time passed as I battled caring for and supporting my mum and younger brother, coping in silence, and focusing all of my efforts on my education. I convinced myself that if I just did my best, I could fix everything.
My mother passed away two months before I started my first year of university. I cannot find a single word to describe how I felt then, and in the moments that have followed.
I can only describe it as a deep agony. Sometimes it is a numbness and at other times it is just fear. Sometimes it is a bittersweet feeling, and other times I sail through, achieving my goals.
When I look back, I recognise that, while the shock of losing her was hard enough, I also lost the old me and who I thought I would be. The Courtney who was about to start university would be bereaved and in shock. This Courtney would have to learn how to relate to others again, how to open her heart again, and how to work through her emotions.
I am still in that process.
The rush of moving to Sheffield and preparing for university blinded me, so I did not allow myself to grieve properly. Grief is something that comes in waves – I have definitely experienced rage, deep sadness, regret and so much more.
Although I do not believe I was ready, I don’t regret my decision to go to university straight away. Because everything has been working for my good, I cannot look back in regret. However, if I could change anything, I would have considered giving myself more time to process such a huge loss.
I would advise any student to take the time to breathe through what you have been through. I think because of the culture of the time we live in, we can often rush ahead of ourselves. Understand that you are an individual and do not pressure yourself to rush forward.
Entering university was rough for me. I was still the almost 19-year-old excited about the future and experiencing the newest phase of my life. However, there was now a new part of me – I describe it as a part because, I don’t want any student to feel like they are only made up of their grief. Time, and the right guidance, will give you the power to separate it from the other aspects of yourself.
I had some unhealthy coping mechanisms – I threw myself into my work, which produced good results, but ignored my mental and emotional health. Grief can make everything feel like an extra effort – making friends, submitting work, having good seasons and bad seasons; sometimes, just going through life can feel like a huge weight.
As students, we strive to do our best and achieve, and I agree that you should try your best. However, your health is so important. You can only truly appreciate success when you are healthy enough to enjoy it.
It was not until my second year that I reached out for counselling– attending a support group that my university held for bereaved students. My aunt passed away in early 2018, and it made me realise that I had not even begun to process the loss of my mother. Going to a support group opened my eyes because grief can make you feel so alone. I suddenly saw that I did not have to go through it by myself – there were others in my exact position, pouring their hearts out. It was a safe space.
I would advise any student reading this, whether you have been bereaved for five months or five years, to find your safe space. It can be really uncomfortable – vulnerability is something that I have struggled with since experiencing bereavement, and I believe that I was sometimes vulnerable with those who did not have the right intentions.
However, I have not let that stop me – it is so important to have a place or person that allows you to be your raw, vulnerable self. Counselling is a great way of getting things off your chest without having to worry about the person to whom you are offloading. My safe space is with those who are able to help me through my emotions, but also with some of my closest friends, who have truly been there for me. I have made a few amazing friends at university who have the kindest souls.
I have learned to find comfort in my creative hobbies – I blog regularly, take photos, write and sing songs. I also have a deep Christian faith that I would describe as my anchor.
Speaking about what I have gone through in different seasons of my life helps me to process it. In the past, I used to keep everything bottled up and it was detrimental to my relationships and mental health. However, you may not find solace in telling your story, and that is OK. Grief is a process and I have often gone from silence to openness to selective sharing and back again.
It is OK to be the student who did not get the perfect start. It is OK to acknowledge that you are not having the time of your life. I know that grief makes you feel isolated and sometimes lost, and I know the university experience may not be what you had hoped because of what you have been through.
I know that sometimes even just showering and eating can seem like the most difficult tasks, let alone handing in assignments, but you have got this. There is so much support available – I wish that I’d explored my options earlier on in my academic journey, but I am thankful for the services I discovered.
There will be a student support tutor in your department – a member of staff specifically tasked with queries to do with extensions and supports – so you don’t need to worry if you feel overwhelmed. When you feel like giving up in grief, remember that what you are going through is natural, and you will not be where you are forever.
I have experienced the toughest years of my life, but I have also worked as hard as any other student. I have learned skills and achieved great things despite my circumstances. Most importantly, even though I have felt alone, I have never been alone. And neither are you.
Read more: How to deal with homesickness at university