How to Grieve When Studying Death and Dying

At the beginning of August, my grandpa passed away and I was completely heartbroken. It was the worst day of my life and I had never felt so much pain and loss. Worse than the loss I felt after cutting off 13 inches of my hair #ragrets... Now, four months later I still think about him every day and it surely doesn’t help that I got his initials tattooed on my wrist, but #noregrets... 

Being a student, I knew going back to school and getting back into my routine was going to be really hard. The university environment is not exactly supportive of taking time off. There is no ideal time to get sick, to go on vacation, and especially not to grieve a loved one. For a long time, I was able to not think about it because I simply didn’t have time. I was swept away into the world of academics, sorority recruitment, and trying to avoid the gym at all costs. There were few reminders of my life with him in it and of what we were missing with him gone. The summer just felt like a bad dream, and being honest I was just happy to have woken up from it.

I am a Public Health student and working towards a minor in Gerontology. So, a lot of my courses involve studying lifespan development and death and dying. There is quite literally no way to avoid the discussions of grief and the experiences of dying that are covered in class. I took a course this semester where older adults participated in our seminars to discuss the changes and benefits of leisure and ageing. In the first few classes, I had to hold back tears and found it really difficult to open up in an environment that reminded me so much of my grandpa. But as the semester went on, I found it comforting to hear about the older adult experiences and how much they love interacting with us young adults. It reminded me of how my grandpa was crowned the family storyteller and when he would speak how we all hung on to his every word as if it was absolute (because it was).

For the past two terms, I have been a volunteer for a variety of exercise programs where the participants are experiencing different health disparities. Most of the patients are older adults and like to share with the university students about their families and lives. The phrase “back in my day” is quite literally how most of our conversations start, while I’m leaning over the handles of a treadmill. In the past, it has been a really rewarding experience to feel like my knowledge is helping someone during a difficult time of their life. But this semester I felt worthless, I felt like the sadness and pain I felt was written on my face. 

So here’s the thing - I never quit, like ever. The only thing I can remember giving up on is running because I hate it. Actually, I think everyone secretly hates running but social desirability pulls ranks and they fake it to fit in. But, after a few weeks of volunteering, I couldn’t handle it anymore, I had to give up my placement. Just being around older adults in that setting and hearing about their grandchildren and how much they loved them made me so upset. I couldn’t help the participants when I was trying my best not to break down in sobs. 

So I quit - and I am so happy I did. 

What I’ve learnt so far in this grieving process is that I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. If something, somewhere, or someone is causing unnecessary pain then I try to make accommodations so that I can do better. Because of this, living without someone you love, is HARD and there is no reason to make it harder for yourself. So I learned to compromise with myself and make it easier as I learn to live without my grandpa. 

With being someone who doesn’t quit and who is afraid of failure comes the personal expectations never to miss class. I brag about the fact that the only class I’ve missed in university so far is when I left class early after throwing up and yeah I am aware I’m crazy. But this semester sitting in classes I felt like the professors were speaking a different language, like I was wasting my time because I was just too distracted to focus. It didn’t help that I had to read chapters focused specifically on death and dying. The pages were definitely tear-soaked after trying to read them. 

It was really discouraging for me as a student to see my grades dropping, the workload increasing, and all I wanted was a break. I wanted to go back to watching or rather pretending to watch Jays games with my grandpa and having him wink at me while we would sing ‘Happy Birthday’. I wanted to be with my little cousins and say “remember when” for hours on end. Remember when grandpa would say “you want a peppermint” like every 5 seconds or remember when he told me I was beautiful and I believed it. 

So what’s the point of this article other than for me to vent my feelings on a public platform? There is no point, it’s just an electronic diary - joking, obviously. Actually, I wanted to share how I have learnt to cope with loss even being surrounded by death in dying in classes. I’ve taught myself to take time to really process what happened, to reach out for help, and to always remember the feelings and memories we have. 

The grieving experience is different for everyone and it’s important, especially as students, to take time to understand your feelings. Now I feel comfortable talking about my grandpa, looking at pictures, and reflecting on our memories together because I finally faced reality. My grandpa, the best man I have ever known is gone but that doesn’t mean I have to forget, I just have to try harder to remember. 

Remember to always take care of yourselves Warriors!


All photos courtesy of the author.