Dealing with the loss of a family member during university

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Rianna shares her personal experience of losing my grandmother during college and shares her tips for finding help

– Rianna Patterson

University life is not easy. I lost my grandmother in my sophomore year. She died on the first day of the exam. I only took one exam and then flew back to Dominica that same week to be with my mother and help plan the funeral. I had to file a license for that tenure, which meant I would take exams at a later date. I managed to pass my exams and go into my final year.

I started the new school year hopeful, but that quickly diminished when I got depressed. I couldn’t fully mourn my grandmother during the summer, so the impact of her death began to affect me in September. I spoke to my university’s psychology support team, they were very supportive. I was on cognitive therapy (CBT) because I couldn’t bring myself to think positively about anything anymore. I had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. I lacked the motivation to even go to a grocery store to buy groceries. The university didn’t fulfill me, my hobbies didn’t fulfill me. I felt like I had no direction.

In November I received an email that sparked an idea and made me want to work towards something. I got my motivation back and kept working on this project. At the beginning of 2020, my enthusiasm subsided again when I found myself in a phase of financial difficulties. I completely gave up on everything and decided to leave social media. I think the break also helped me focus on my mental health and therapy sessions. After the exams I got back on social media and started working on the film project I plan to start now in November 2020 to raise awareness of dementia. Proceeds from the film will also be used for educational and mental health charities in memory of my grandmother.

One piece of advice I would give to anyone faced with the loss of a family member while in college is to be patient with yourself and focus on the essentials. Motivation is like a curveball, it will come and go. Grades are important, but personally I believe that your sanity is paramount. I still work on my own to take breaks and be kind to myself, but sometimes life puts you in a position where you have no choice but to be still and heal. Call a friend, there will always be someone who understands, but keep in mind that your friends are not your therapist. I wouldn’t suggest depending on your friends for clarity and deeper understanding. If necessary, seek professional help.

Grief is a process that can activate a very sensitive side of you. I was very vulnerable during that time. I would offend anything and everyone. There were times when I felt alone and didn’t reach out for help. If you think about it, it wasn’t a good approach. Talk to your university and join support groups. In the early stages of grief, creativity gave me meaning and joy, thought about what would work for you, and tried it. It could be painting or journaling. Allow yourself to feel, whether positive or negative. Suppressing your emotions is not a concrete strategy. Feel so that you can heal.

For more advice on caring for your mental wellbeing at university, see Student Minds. Visit the NHS website for support and resources for those who have died in the grief. Let’s talk about loss too Support people between the ages of 18 and 35 who have lost someone. Visit the Student Space for more information on managing losses, especially during the coronavirus outbreak.

Rianna Patterson is the founder of a youth-run charity called the Dominica Dementia Foundation, which works to raise awareness about dementia and support nursing homes, families and caregivers affected by dementia. She is also a TEDx spokesperson and director of the film Dementia the Island Journey, a project that motivated her throughout her university life. If you would like to learn more about the project, please visit these links:

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