Grief at Oxford

Image Description: Angel of Grief statue at Holy Sepulchre Cemetry, Rochester, New York

With its 8-week terms, abundant workload, and ceaseless movement, Oxford isn’t exactly renowned for being forgiving – the smallest of obstacles can easily set us back, and tarnish the chances of even trying to meet our deadlines. So it’s no surprise that, when those obstacles are emotional, the natural inclination is to push it down and power through. But sometimes it isn’t that easy.

Grief is difficult and demanding, and different for everybody – but, in my experience, it’s considerably harder to deal with during term-time.

Grief is difficult and demanding, and different for everybody – but, in my experience, it’s considerably harder to deal with during term-time. Grief is hard to control, and sometimes it feels like it’s easier to ignore it: because once you allow yourself to feel it, you don’t quite know when it’ll stop. Its unpredictable and vicious nature means that, if you indulge in it for a second, it could consume you for a week; and at Oxford, that really isn’t a luxury that we feel we can afford ourselves.

Grief is also volatile, and its unpredictability isn’t exclusive to duration – it’s impossible to tell when and how and why it might strike us, too. You can easily spend hours reminiscing over old photos and Joni Mitchell albums in the hope that you can grieve at your convenience, have a cathartic cry, and tick ‘recognise your emotions’ off the to-do list, and still get absolutely nowhere with it. Whereas on other days it can take as little as a glance at the confectionery aisle to throw you into the depths of emotional distress. In a place where everything else is regimented, and everybody around you seems to be knee-deep in their own responsibilities and problems, this lack of control can lead you to feel as if you have no time to talk – or, even if you did, nobody would have time to listen.

It’s not easy to talk about, either. Whilst we can all joke about death fairly easily, it seems to instil intense discomfort as soon as we take out the humour. It’s awkward to bring up our experiences of grief – it seems to cross an invisible line of which problems we can and can’t discuss openly. It could be because it lacks solutions, and differs widely between experiences. Or perhaps because we’re inexperienced in discussing it, creating a vicious cycle of silence. Whatever it is, the reluctance to discuss it certainly doesn’t do us many favours. It can feel invalidating and isolating – and if you can’t even talk to your friends about it, how are you meant to tell your tutors on the days where grief gets in the way of our workload, where our brains are so occupied and foggy that we can barely construct an email, let alone an essay? Because telling your tutor that you can’t do your work because you miss your loved one today feels inadequate.

My first term at Oxford also marked the first anniversary of my dad’s death. Being moved into halls by my aunt and my sister, both of whom left that evening, I had never felt more aware of my circumstances. I was reluctant to meet people, to start conversations, to look outside and see them hugging their own parents goodbye. For the first time, my grief manifested itself in envy and bitterness, as I thought about how unfair it was that the person who would’ve been most proud of me was unable to experience it. That night, and so many nights since then, I felt alone in my situation, hundreds of miles from home.

Your grief, whether you feel it at home or in the middle of a lecture, is valid.

I still hesitate to mention him at times. Not his death, or his illness, or how I feel about any of it – just him in general. And it’s not through fear of getting emotional, either: it’s fear of making people feel awkward, of implying that I have any kind of nostalgia or grief within me, implying that I miss the man who helped to raise and support me. Maybe this issue isn’t an Oxford-specific one, but I can’t help but wonder if some if it stems from a fear of seeming weak; seeming like I’m a sentimental, nostalgic person who can be easily lost in a flurry of memories or emotions. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt throughout the first year of my degree, it’s that you’re not weak for remembering. You’re not weak for telling stories, or acknowledging your loss, because pretending that your loved one never existed is no substitute for grieving their death. Denying yourself memories is senseless, because if there’s one way for them to live on, it’s through your words, your stories, and your souvenirs.

Your grief, whether you feel it at home or in the middle of a lecture, is valid. When forcing it doesn’t work, it can easily feel as if ignoring it is the next best thing – but it’s not. Be permissive. Indulge in your emotions, and let yourself miss your loved one. Think about them, and remember them in the way they deserve to be remembered: because nobody can control grief, and it certainly isn’t a linear journey. Some days will be worse than others – so be kind to yourself, and let yourself grieve. It’s definitely more important than that essay.

Image credit: Einar Einarsson Kvaran