There is no grief like the grief that doesn’t speak
13 August 2020
You can never truly be prepared for the death of a person close to you; the angst that follows, and how it doesn’t ever really leave you. Not completely. A quote that has always resonated with me is “grief changes shape, but it never ends". The range of emotions, the smallest of triggers which effect you even years later, the unanswered questions, the memories, the words you wish you’d said and the words you are glad you did say.
I tragically lost my sister at age 14. As I write this, I think about how I am now at the age where half of my life was spent with a sister by my side, and the other learning how to live without her by my side.
Jo was in her second year at University. I remember attending her graduation, where her degree was awarded posthumously. I couldn’t believe that my sister would not be completing her degree. In a strange way, following this I was somewhat comforted and guided by my sister’s life; I achieved top grades, worked hard, juggled demanding jobs around my studies and attended University. I made great friends, loved living in Brighton and enjoyed my degree.
When it came to my Jo’s death, I liked having control over what information my University friends had about this part of my life. Everyone from my home town knew what my family had been through. At University, it was my choice who I would allow access to this private information, reserved only for those I could trust.
When I did want to speak out, I constantly found myself looking for the ‘right’ time to tell my friends. I didn’t want to make them feel awkward, treat me any different or put a ‘downer’ on our experience. This feeling has never really gone away but certainly has got easier as I have got older. I always feel relieved and closer to people after I tell them. It’s part of my life and shouldn’t be hidden away. Speaking about my sister’s life and my family’s experience of loss is something that has helped me live with it. As we enter a new academic year and consider the spectrum of Covid-19 impacts, bereavement continues to be on my mind. Students living in our properties may have just arrived having lost someone in recent months, be away from a loved one who is vulnerable, or are worried about the people they care about the most becoming ill.
Of course, these concerns are not exclusive to students, but are unquestionably a stark contradiction to the independent, care-free, and the ‘time-of-your-life’ ethos often associated with student life.
Students who have been impacted by a bereavement due to Covid-19 may have had little time to prepare for the death. Perhaps they were unable to spend any time with the person before they died, due to infection risk. They may not have been able to organise the desired gathering to say goodbye and may even have others in their circle of family and friends impacted by Covid-19.
University is already a transitional and insecure time for some students. Most find themselves living away from home for the first time and adjusting to full-time study, all while navigating a new city. Some thrive and relish in the new experiences. However, it’s during University that some people’s sense of identity can still be forming as well as their goals, aspirations and plans for the future. – a future which is more ambiguous than ever in the midst of this pandemic..
As a business, we promote an environment and culture where students are able, and are actively encouraged, to seek support when needed. Some students may build a relationship with our frontline teams, the people they see and chat to most days, in the place they call home. We have Welfare Leads who can provide information to students and offer support within the properties. We see examples every single day of customers trusting in our people, and feeling comfortable to open up to them. This is apparent, in all properties. This is what makes me proud to work for Unite Students.
When I reflect on my own graduation, although I felt happy and proud of myself, I remember an internal conflict of guilt and sadness. I came to the glaring realisation that I had got to the stage in my life where I no longer knew what to do next. I was no longer guided by my sister’s path. A new type of grief hit me at age 21, seven years after my sister’s death. As I’ve said: Grief changes shape but it doesn’t end.
I believe everyone should acknowledge their grief. Whether this be in conversations with students, colleagues, family, friends or neighbours. Often, we can be concerned about saying the ‘wrong’ thing so we end up saying nothing at all. Grief is already present; you will not unlock it further or make it worse by recognising it exists. Through acknowledgement, you are permitting that person to speak; the most important and powerful thing you can do is listen. After all, there really is no grief like the grief that doesn’t speak.
Child bereavement UK support children and young people up to the age of 25 who are facing bereavement.Their Helpline (0800 02 888 40) operates Monday – Friday, 9am – 5pm (except Bank Holidays).
Remember to consider your own wellbeing. There are excellent sources of information and support on the Health and Wellbeing page on the intranet, including LifeWorks, our Employee Assistance Programme.