My mum died when I was 19; that is, last May. My choice to take a year out before starting university, in a sort of black irony, meant I didn’t drop out of first year after her death, as I surely would have. Instead, I faced in September a repeat of the first few weeks after it happened—explaining what happened, the sympathetic looks, awkward pauses and my new course-mates’ swift attempts to change the topic of conversation.
Losing a parent as a teenager is an outlier in terms of early life experiences (although not as rare as we may heuristically assume; some estimates suggest a parent with dependent children dies in the UK every 22 minutes). The injustice felt becomes something more than just the pain and aching grief; the new hole torn into my life was also filled with bitterness. I wish I could say I didn’t feel jealous when my flatmates and friends received visits, care packages, skype calls from their mothers. But of course, I do; pangs of pain infiltrate any family-oriented conversation. When the topic comes up, people commend my ‘bravery’ and ‘strength’ for committing to my studies and continuing life as usual. This is a misconception—nothing in my life has gone back to normal, nothing ever will be. To continue with life is not bravery; as anyone struggling with grief or mental health issues knows. Life continues by itself, whether or not you are an active participant in it.
Being at university with any kind of mental pain is a constant battle. The intense microcosm of social pressures; simultaneously awash with opportunities to socialise almost constantly and the perpetual threat of extreme isolation if I failed. Couple that with an academic environment fundamentally different and more taxing than school or college, and suddenly you can see why rates of mental illness have increased so dramatically in universities; 50% of visits to the Bristol student health service are related to mental health. That’s a staggering statistic, particularly as we’re acutely aware of how consistently the appointments are fully booked for weeks at a time. For me, adjusting to university involved compartmentalising my own struggles temporarily, to create a public face that was bubbly and excitable. Issues with mental health and grieving don’t make fun pres banter, after all.
Broaching the topic with the people I’ve met and who have since become my friends at university was the most vital step in dealing with my grief in the healthiest way. It’s scary. It’s painful knowing in advance how people will respond; in the past year I’ve developed a routine response to the condolences and awkward hugs. But it’s also so important. Being around friends has been the best way to adapt to life again—and no one can be a true friend without knowing about the events most influential in creating the person I am today.
Like the stigma attached to mental illness, the taboo on talking about death still holds firm in our society, especially with the two being so intrinsically linked. I strongly believe the pointed silence on discussing mortality is incredibly unhealthy. For me, it has resulted in selective mutism from even close friends on the matter of my mum’s death; everyone will live through the loss of a parent, so to me, failure to discuss it will lead to maladaptive ways of coping. Especially for young people, bereavement and how we deal with it impacts the rest of our lives—for example, children who have parents who commit suicide are three times more likely to do this themselves later in life.
Death is inevitable; bereavement is a universal experience.
We can’t continue to pretend it doesn’t happen. Different cultures are where we should look for inspiration to accept death into our lives: Mexico’s Día de Muertos involves communities celebrating those they have lost with parades and parties as well as prayers. Having a national holiday in the spirit of celebrating the dead isn’t uncommon, with similar national holidays like QingMing festival in China, Korea’s Chuseok and some African traditions—arguably, Britain is an outlier. Maintaining a ‘stiff upper lip’ is classically British, but isn’t it ultimately doing more harm than good to keep schtum on issues that debilitate lives every day?
There is close to a paradigm shift occurring with our openness about mental health. However, there is a tendency towards allowing only certain ‘acceptable’ faces of crises to be discussed; depression and anxiety troubles are being understood but struggle with hearing voices or personality disorders and you’re still very much shunned from general discussion. Similar rules apply for bereavement. As the new generation of young adults, in the context of university, we should aim to open up conversation about all issues affecting wellbeing, and grief should be part of that.
I miss my mum; I think of her every day. I’m grateful that in my family we talk about our loss, but also about what we gained from sharing our lives with her. Going forward, society needs to begin to accept the unpleasant presence of death to allow for a more pleasant adjustment to life after those we love pass away.
My mum died of sepsis, a condition so under-represented in awareness campaigns that I could write a whole new article on the issue. It kills around 44,000 people in the UK every year, and can result from any kind of infection. For more information on how to spot and prevent sepsis, visit the Sepsis UK Trust website.