What moving to university feels like after the loss of a family member

Being a fresher and coping with grief during your first year at university

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It’s well known that everyone hates ice breakers. They’re awkward, you never have an interesting fact about yourself, they’re boring. But for me, it’s different. I dread getting asked what would be an easy question for anyone else.

"Do you have any siblings?"

Well actually my only sister passed away when I was 16 so I’m an only child now but saying no feels awful…

"yeah, I’ve got an older sister"

Making new friends, leaving home, and grief all in one as a fresher

Being a fresher and moving to university can be extremely hard for someone who is dealing with a past bereavement. Firstly, having to leave the people you love back home can feel devastating. I'm terrified of losing my parents, and being away from them for long periods of time knowing that I'm all they have left makes me feel so guilty. I know that I needed to leave home for self betterment, and my parents never tried to stop me, but the guilt really consumes me.

You’re then surrounded by all these new people who never met the person you lost, so describing memories of that person can feel empty. Whilst my friends at uni are amazing, talking to them about my sister just reminds me of the fact that they won’t ever meet her, because she's gone. They can't comment on the stories I tell. They can't share that love for her.

Am I missing my sister enough?

What I struggled with most during all the disorganisation of my first term as a fresher was feeling almost too busy to be missing my sister. I thought of her often, but it didn't seem like I missed her because I wasn’t as sad about it as I used to be.

Being surrounded by all these amazing new friends and actually having a social life felt good. It was refreshing not solely being defined as "the girl whose sister passed away" like I was in school. It meant that I didn't define myself that way anymore.

The thoughts of my sister were fleeting, I was always concentrating more on what readings I had to do, what meals to make that week, when to schedule meetups with friends. I didn’t cry as much as I used to. I'd clearly just moved on from my pain and forgotten my sister. That made me a shitty person, I decided.

The grief process isn't linear, don't beat yourself up for it

There came a point where the guilt of not missing my sister and leaving my parents became encompassing, so I signed up for counselling. I think counselling is great, but all they really did was go through the "5 Stages of Grief" model as if pain is linear and grief is just something you get over.

These should be seen as common experiences of grief, rather than required stages

Losing someone you love isn’t simply a "thank u, next," and about trying to find a replacement. I don’t think you can ever truly reach acceptance that someone is gone from your life. No one can ever replace that person or the wonderful memories they gave you.

Crying and feeling depressed are normal responses to grief, but they aren't the only ones that exist.

How I remember my sister at uni

Probably the hardest part about moving to university is the complete lack of physical reminders of the person you lost. All you really have is still photographs, and its not the same. You're in a completely new environment without close friends from home. It's normal for the way you grieve to change. It's normal to feel like you're forgetting, but you aren't. Grief is complex, but it isn’t ordered, and you don't forget its existence, regardless of whatever emotion you're feeling.

Out of sight but most certainly not out of mind – despite being away from home I've made sure my sister's presence is here with me through pictures and things that belonged to her

Why do you have to be sad to be seen as grieving?

People are always shocked by how candid I am when I first tell them that my sister passed away, as if it isn't a big deal to me. Just because I don't cry or appear sad when I tell people doesn't mean that I'm negating how difficult it is to feel whole again after such a sheer loss.

We need to alter our perception of bereavement, because by talking about my sister, I'm not asking for pity, and I hate feeling the mood in the room dip when I do. I like talking about my sister like it's normal, like it's not some kind of tragedy. It's comforting slipping her into conversations like other people can with their siblings, like she's still here.

There isn't any one "face" to grief – people feel it in different ways

In no way do my experiences replicate all other experiences, but I think all we grieving students need to cut ourselves some slack and stop with the self imposed guilt. As life goes on, you will find better outlets to cope with your grief, but don’t confuse that with feeling like you’re simply forgetting the person you've lost. You're just dealing with it better, which is great.

Just because your new friends might not know the person you lost, it doesn’t mean that they can’t appreciate the stories you tell them. University is meant to harbour some of the best times of your life, so don't feel like you aren't allowed to enjoy it because you should be grieving. The person you have lost would want you to enjoy life and carry their memory forward.

To whoever is reading and going through a similar experience, I'm proud of you. Allow yourself time to heal and surround yourself with good people who you can talk to whenever you need. You got this x

Image credit: Timpo