When I opened up Microsoft Word on my laptop this morning, I was expecting to write something on carols and performance. Instead, this came out: a reflection on working and studying through grief. I debated sharing it. I am definitely not an ‘authority’ on grief nor am I an expert on the ways to work through it. Everyone grieves in different ways. But if what I have to say can help someone in some way though then this post will have done its job.
In early 2019 I lost one of my close friends, Becca. Becca was the first friend I made at Oxford. We pretty much talked every day and seemed to just click. Our friendship became this happy constant. Unfortunately, in Hilary term (spring) Becca passed following post-operative complications of heart transplant surgery. I remember the moment I received the news very clearly. I had just walked into chapel for choir and was slightly early. I checked my phone and saw a message from Becca’s mum. For a while after opening that message I just couldn’t talk. I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t do anything. I just sat down in the side chapel. I think I may have tried messaging Becca. I was lucky that one of my other close friends happened to be in chapel at the same time. He just sat next to me and waited. To be honest that was what I needed. It was the greatest comfort just to have someone there, someone who wouldn’t force me to talk or react in any certain way but would just sit and wait with me. I can’t describe how grateful I am for that and how much that simple act of friendship meant and continues to mean to me.
The days following Becca’s death were just a whirlwind of emails and stress. Our class had deadlines the following week for two Master’s essays. No one was are of the process to apply for an extension and our colleges didn’t respond quickly to our emails. We were all trying to deal with the death of our friend and classmate but it felt like we were almost expected to carry on as normal. I stayed up working through the night trying to get my essays done ahead of the deadline. There was no time to grieve or process.
There are a few things I’ve learnt along the way from my experience. These mainly revolve around how to manage grief whilst studying but can probably be applied to other situations. I thought I’d write down a few of these things here and I really do hope that they help those of you who might be going through a similar situation.
Grief has no timeline
This was something I learnt the hard way. I expected myself to grieve for a few months and then be ok. It’s not like that. Grief takes time. My first reaction was just to feel numb — a form of self-preservation and one which enabled me to get through the stress of the following weeks. The reality of it all only truly hit me a year later, on the anniversary of Becca’s death. However, I couldn’t seem to voice to anyone what I was feeling. All I knew was that I missed my friend and all the events from the year before seemed to be coming back very vividly. I pushed people away, I lashed out at people I loved. I could hardly recognise myself at points. Grief does very strange things. You may feel fine for a while, you may feel like everything’s ok. At some point though it catches up to you and when it does it can feel incredibly overwhelming. But that’s ok. You’re allowed to feel. You’re not expected to ‘get over it’ in a few weeks or a few months. Don’t feel guilty. Grief can hit you at the most unexpected time.
When you’ve suffered a loss it’s ok to take time out, whether this means asking for an extension or deferring work. You may not want to do this or feel like it’s necessary. It’s better though to just have some time to think and acknowledge what you’ve been through. It will help you in the long run and does not make you weak.
It can be really hard to trust people with your emotions, especially when you’re grieving. Sometimes we instinctively push people away because we’re afraid of any further hurt. Sometimes grief can make you say things you regret or react in ways you normally wouldn’t. There are good people out there though, ones who genuinely want to help and want to listen and won’t judge you for anything you say or do. When these people reach out, try not to push them away. It’s ok to tell them that you need space and it’s ok to take some time for yourself. Try to communicate this to them though. They will understand and they won’t get angry or leave. When you’re ready to talk they’ll be there. It may be really difficult, but you can trust them. The people who help you and are there for you during this time will probably end up being some of the most important people in your life.
Try not to put pressure on yourself
This one can be really hard. Sometimes we feel like we need to just get through everything and manage everything perfectly. Sometimes that’s not possible, especially if you’re trying to work through grief whilst studying or working. Some things can wait though. Don’t feel like you have to keep everything going. People will understand if you don’t manage to finish that essay. Tutors are also people and most of them will understand what you’re going through. Sometimes the greatest achievement is just being able to get out of bed in the morning.
Find ways of remembering
It was setting up the Pilgrimage Challenge in memory of Becca that really helped me to process things and to start to feel better. I felt like I was doing something productive and worthwhile. Being outside away from all social media and all the chaos of ‘normal life’ helped me to think through things. By walking and raising money for charity I felt like I was ‘doing something’ and keeping Becca’s memory alive in some way. Little things like lighting a candle every day can really help and can provide a few moments of peace and reflection every day.