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Mental Health Awareness Week: Coping with grief at university

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For many people, university provides some of the happiest times of their lives. There's the feeling of living in and exploring a new city, being almost totally independent, making new friends... the list could probably go on.

But sometimes a spanner is thrown in the works, and the bubble can pop. Being far away from home suddenly doesn't feel as great when a loved one passes away.

When I was nearing the end of my second year of university, in fact, in March this year, my aunt died. Perhaps it doesn't sound as important as a parent, but my aunt was just that - she was like another parent. One of the most prominent figures throughout my childhood and upbringing, and one of my favourite people in the world, her passing left me feeling like I'd lost a limb.

I think that tip number one, before anything else even comes into it, is to not compare your grief to that of others. Your aunty is just as important as a parent, or a cousin as important as a sibling - and if it hurts you then it hurts, you don't need to justify your relationship to this person to your tutors.

Perhaps its obvious, but the first thing you should do is speak to your tutor/s or relevant figure about the issue. They can give you deadline extensions, and help you fill out forms for extenuating circumstances if you have to sit exams or submit formal assessments.

You're not the first person to experience this, and you won't be the last, either. Speak openly and honestly with them. Some may be very straight to the point and tell you how to apply for extensions under bereavement terms, and some may offer extra support - be it some heartfelt advice and sympathy or time off from lectures.

Go home, if you can. Being with your family is important, and chances are they need you as much as you need them right now. I was lucky enough to be able to get on the first train possible after hearing the news about my aunty, but if you need a few hours or few days that's also okay. They will appreciate you coming back, and may be able to help you financially with a last minute train ticket. It's also okay, however, to not go home if you feel as though you can't. Speak to your family and come up with a plan.

If you do go home, take a small amount of work with you. I know that personally, even though I had been given an extension, I wanted to try and keep on top of some tasks so that I didn't have to rush through everything when I returned. You don't have to do a lot, but your future self will thank you. 

Accept any help that's offered to you, be it from friends, family, tutors, your university's wellbeing teams, your religious figureheads... don't lock yourself away and keep things bottled up. Recognise your need to talk about the deceased.

Make use of your university's counselling services. They are available to everyone for a wide range of problems; they are not only there for mental health problems. From money issues, homesickness and bereavement, they can offer support and help and give you a safe, judgement-free space to talk freely about how you are feeling. 

It's important to understand that there is no set way to grieve, and everyone experiences it differently. If you need to cry, cry. If you don't cry, don't feel bad about it. Feeling angry, upset, sad, shocked, numb, guilt, achy or traumatised is completely normal. Recognise your feelings and work with them. Shutting them away will do you more harm than good. Letting your emotions flow freely and taking the right steps in discussing your situation with your university are the two most important things you should do - and then you can work to make your loved one proud.

Find out more about coping with bereavement on NHS Choices here.

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