I will try to avoid the apparent cliches whilst writing this and instead open up a conversation about navigating grief whilst attending university. This involves travelling between two very different worlds, one which requires me to confront the hardest goodbyes of my life and another which is countless introductions to new friends, experiences, and passions.
I do not believe that I have a convenient response to loss that can be applied to any situation. I simply hope that people can find comforting relatability in some of my words. I am in the 3rd year of my undergrad at Leeds University. My entire university experience has been underpinned by grief and loss. I don’t know how best to explain the last few years of my life, so I often try to quantify by age and timescale. During my fresher’s week in September 2021, my grandma passed away at the age of 76. Six months later, in March 2022, my dad passed away at the age of 42. One year and six months later, in August 2023, my Grandad passed away at the age of 76. Since I was 15, I have had responsibilities as a young carer as after nearly two years of misdiagnosis, my dad, Matthew Miller, was diagnosed with Stage Four bowel cancer at just thirty-seven years old. His health rapidly deteriorated in November 2021 when he was admitted to the ICU and then Hospice in our hometown, London. During this time, my sister and I travelled back and forth from Leeds University and Bristol University, respectively. Our family’s four-year battle with cancer ended on 11th March 2022, when my dad passed away at home with multiple sites of organ failure and liver disease.
This article is a slightly selfish endeavour, and I am hoping the process of writing about my personal experience of loss will be cathartic. I am also hoping to start conversations between friends because loss is something we all experience, but we are taught very little about how to talk about it, particularly with our peers. My advice is if you’re feeling vulnerable and struggling, it’s okay to be selfish sometimes. Prioritising your well-being will help those who love you in the long run.
Something I find inexplicably hard is finding the appropriate or ‘right time’ to talk to my friends about things I’ve been struggling with. But I don’t think the ‘right time’ exists, and I don’t think there is ever one ‘right thing’ to say. I have learnt that I can only prioritise thoughtfulness and kindness in my approach to conversations. Even with those you love, the idea of talking about serious issues can sometimes feel intrusive to the rest of your life. But I am more at peace after sharing and grateful for those who listen and do their best to help. Whether you seek support or want to check in on a friend, we must speak up, even if we are afraid of saying the wrong thing.
I am eternally thankful for my support system; I think the ability to choose your family can be a beautiful thing. I have an army of incredible women who teach me something new and profound whenever I talk to them. I’m grateful to them for making the space for me to be young and sad when it felt like the world expected too much of me.
People always tell you, or at least they always told me, that university is a great experience I wouldn’t want to miss out on. They were right. Many in my life love to reminisce about growing up, less responsibility and shared houses; I’m sure I will, too. I count myself very lucky to have people to talk to about my future. Still, I think hearing these fond memories has made me acutely aware of the opportunities I have access to at university and how I don’t want to miss out on them. I often think about how I am simultaneously living the assumed best years of my life whilst grappling with heartbreaking loss. I believe life is a series of highs and lows, and the fluctuations don’t make sense on any timeline. So, I want to be careful not to over-emphasise this period of my life, or anyone else’s, as definitive. I believe we can change our paths anytime, but I can only share from my 20 years of experience. Maybe I’m over-emphasising the era of young adulthood and the continuation of closing doors and opening windows, although its cliché just keeps happening.
I can say for sure that, for the last few years, I felt like life was asking very different things of me. In Leeds, I tried to throw myself into my modules, join societies and apply for part-time jobs. In London, I tried to care for my family and cherish the time I had left with my dad. Both these realities existed alongside one another; I am still doing a degree as I was losing a father. I struggled to balance working hard in my studies and being a present and fun friend while giving myself the space to process and grieve. It felt unfair that I had to work through all this when others didn’t.
Comparing myself to others in this way was one of the most isolating things for me, experiencing loss as a young person. This was probably exacerbated by the fact I was living with friends, as I watched our day-to-day responsibilities and relationships look very different. These comparisons only highlighted absences in my life and made me feel miserable. I am still hesitant now writing this because I never want other people to feel bad for what they have, and I have learnt that you will always find something others have that you don’t. I think it’s a natural response; I still struggle with these feelings of injustice and anger, particularly during holidays that I can’t share with those I love. Although, I do largely feel lucky that I had the privilege of knowing and being loved by my dad for the time we had together.
My concluding, hopefully hopeful, thoughts are people find comfort in various places. There’s the cliched classic ‘everything happens for a reason’, which doesn’t bring me particular comfort. I find it hard to put blind faith in the world’s seemingly random and unjust events. Instead, I understand that not everything that happens is okay or fair, but we can find something good in the worst times, even if the something we find is faith in ourselves. I find purpose in creativity; often, when I have thoughts or feelings that are too overwhelming to deal with immediately, I write them down with the promise that I can return and turn them into something meaningful. I also attempt to practise gratitude, an appreciation for the unconditional love and support we might be lucky enough to experience. On that note, I want to thank HerCampus, specifically the Leeds branch, for creating a space that made me feel safe and encouraged me to share in this way.
I don’t think I’ll ever feel one way about this forever. Time and reflection have power over us that shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s probably clear whilst reading this that I’m still figuring my shit out.
Edited by: Aimee Missen