My step-dad dying before I came to uni made me realise there is no one way to grieve

It happened 2 weeks before I started Brookes

My family were holidaying in Cornwall the summer before I started at university, I’d stayed home. The 29th was my 19th birthday, and they called me to wish me the best. Paul, my mum’s boyfriend and the man who I saw as father  and meant the world to me, died the day after.

He was so happy, it was his first holiday in a long time, and he needed it. He wished me a very Happy Birthday, and hung up after his classic, “see ya later sweetie, love ya”.

Paul had been teaching Harriet, my sister, to dive in the sea at a small beach. He was an experienced cave diver and had all necessary equipment. The family had fallen into trouble underwater, and Mum saved Harriet, whilst Paul disappeared.

The drive to be with my family was long and silent. I arrived at the hyperbaric centre at Plymouth hospital at around midnight. My mum was outside, bare-foot and shivering, wearing her clothes from the beach. The lioness of a woman who brought me into this world was broken. The reality hit me: the love of her life had died, half of her is missing.

My other sister, Charlotte, and my brother, Samuel, were in a waiting room. As they ran up to me I was thrown into some kind of movie scene; slow motion, everything felt unreal. I needed to hold onto them forever and protect them, their faces were so empty and lost, I can’t even begin to comprehend what they’d seen that day.

I don’t think I’m ever going to feel relief like when I was told Harriet was out of the hyperbaric chamber. My baby sister was going to be okay. I stayed overnight in the hospital with her, the first time we’d ever willingly shared a bed. She explained to me what had happened. I was in so much shock that I was physically sick, and we both cried ourselves to sleep.

The next couple of weeks were a mess. How are you supposed to carry on living life as normal?

We came to the conclusion that there is no normal without Paul; a new life has to be created. I think that’s the worst part about grief, your world stops, but the rest of the world keeps moving. Everybody around you is advancing while you’re stuck in your own mind, trying to process the fact that a huge part of your life is gone.

Our family calendar has no entries after his death.

Moving to uni two weeks after he died was painful, but also a huge relief. I could selfishly process my own grief. Meeting new people was difficult, I was a broken person and trying to form friendships on that basis was near impossible.

Paul was so proud when Brookes gave me an unconditional offer. He willingly came with me to the applicant day, where he developed a loving relationship with the wheelie chairs in JHB, sliding down the forum and embarrassing me like any Dad should. A man asked to interview me and my ‘Dad’, we looked at each other and smiled – having somebody else acknowledge his importance in my life was amazing.

He was so excited to  help me move in, and had booked a hotel with Mum for the weekend in order to look at local business opportunities. They were looking forward to moving away from Horsham to begin their life together after his divorce finalised. Oxford was one of his favourite cities, I see him around every corner.

Paul’s ex-wife had filed for divorce a week before he died. This caused a lot of complications when it came to his possessions and the funeral arrangements. All responsibility was handed to her the day after he died. Demands for his possessions began straight away, and we were denied access to his funeral.We hadn’t even began to process the trauma, yet were bombarded with requests. I felt cheated and disrespected.

Paul loved me, however I was made to believe I wasn’t allowed to say goodbye. People who hadn’t seen Paul for years, and people he outright hated had been invited, so why weren’t the people he was choosing to spend his life with allowed to be there?

I came home from uni after freshers, and we spent two days with his body before the funeral. Holding our own ceremony, we were allowed to properly see him. Mum’s priority was making sure that he was comfortable, and wasn’t alone. He hated being on his own. We styled his hair how he liked it and put some flowers in with him. After they closed his coffin, I tucked some blankets around him as he always hated being cold, and said goodbye for the last time.

Both my Mum and Harriet have been diagnosed with PTSD and seven long months on are still having weekly EMDR therapy sessions. Both of them are triggered by each other’s presence. Harriet currently suffers with hearing voices, disassociation and she is triggered by water, wires, tubes and small spaces.

Trying to support them through their trauma, whilst grieving myself, has broken me beyond repair. I haven’t grieved; in my own little world, he’s gone away and he’s coming back. I’m convinced he’s going to call me any minute. Some days I sit and cry for hours, and my grief physically hurts me, I can feel it in my heart. Other days I am totally okay. People have said to me “you must be over it by now”, and I really struggle with the fact that I’m not, grief takes as long as you need it to. Nobody has the right to tell you how to feel.

Brookes have been so supportive, helping me with extensions for my assessments and providing me with counselling too.

There is no proper way to grieve, there’s no manual or script. Never be afraid to ask for help, or be ashamed of your grief. You are worthy of your feelings.