What I Wish I Knew about Grief at University

By Peri Heaton

Understandably, this is going to be a sad blog post. But, grief is a process that we will all experience, and it is important to acknowledge its existence. Chances are, there are students reading this who may be experiencing grief as well.


So, here is my letter to my past self (and anyone reading this blog), and everything I wish I knew about grief before I started my first year at Oxford.


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Grief can be isolating, especially when you are starting first year. This is because you are expected to be making new friends and be outgoing. Except, you are not your true self, as you are grieving the person you lost. You yearn to reach out and talk to people about your grief, in an attempt to understand it. And yet, this feels like a selfish act, as you do not want to burden people with your sadness - especially about someone they've never met.


Unfortunately, even the act of being at university felt selfish for me, since my friend died in a car accident after being hit by a drunk driver, less than a week before starting her course. It was a horrible shock to our community at home. We felt sadness and denial that such a bright and lively person could be taken away. And, I felt guilt, for being able to get on with my life and start university, as she should have been able to do.


It felt like an escape from the grief at home, but I did not appreciate that I took part of the grief with me and could not simply ‘crack on’ as intended. All my thinking would revert back to grief. It was everywhere: at my lectures, when in college, at socials, in my room, as I tried to sleep. Being away from family and friends also made this worse, because (as far as I was aware) no one else was grieving. They could sympathise, but not necessarily empathise.

My naïve self did not initially seek help from my university friends. I did not initially talk about it. And, possibly worse of all, I did not initially tell my tutors.


However, when I did, then my healing started.


Friends that noticed I was upset were considerate and generous. Tutors who were aware (after I emailed to let them know my absence to attend the funeral) were kind and helpful. Our college chaplain mentioned my late friend in the Evensong prayers. Despite not being religious myself, having her name out in the open felt so cathartic. She was no longer a person hidden within myself, but a girl made real at this ‘other world’ of university by having others hear her name.


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So, what is the message behind my blog? Well, not only is it part of the healing process for me, one year on, but it is also to urge you to reach out. From my experience, it is the nature of grief to be isolating. After all, you have been left behind by the person you lost, and you feel their absence.


This grief, coupled with the strangeness of starting university, felt like two great movements within my life that I was struggling to understand and cope with. But despite you irrationally feeling burdensome, I urge you to seek help. This isolation can be temporary if you simply talk to others. Tell your friends, tell your tutors, tell your college members. Isolation is something we have to learn to bring ourselves out from, and the first step to doing that is to talk.


My friends and I have all changed during this process of grief, and I will not wish the nature of this lesson upon anyone. Instead, here is my blog entry to try to help. No one can fully prepare for grief, but hopefully this entry will let you know that it is okay to hurt, and it is okay to reach out, and you do not deserve isolation.


So, talk. Tell people. Do not feel like a burden. Let go of your guilt. Allow yourself to feel grief and not hide it away within yourself. Reach out of your isolation, as there are many friendly faces to help you do so. Allow yourself to heal.


It has taught me to appreciate life as she did, and to channel her inherent vibrancy. So, be thankful for your life. Go out and enjoy it.