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‘The grief remains, but every tear represents a beautiful memory’

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How can I continue my life without my father? How am I supposed to enjoy life again? Inge Vliek, Media & Culture student, lost her father at the beginning of this year after she worked as an informal caregiver for him. She describes the fight she had as a grieving student and the struggle of resuming her studies.

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Being a student has always had a certain meaning to me. You start living in student housing, attend a lot of parties, and meet new people. However, that can turn out to be very different. I experienced this when I was an informal caregiver for a long time and after this a grieving student because my father passed away.

My father had been sick a large part of my life. It started when I was eight years old. First, my father had to go to the hospital for heart failure. After that, it went well for a few years, until he was diagnosed with diabetes. This was also the beginning of my role as an informal caregiver. I constantly watched over him and his health, especially because suddenly he could get a hyper or a hypo for which I was needed to help him.

Anticipatory grief
The job as an informal caregiver was expanded after my father had had a stroke. My mother came home from the supermarket with my father in this condition next to her in the car. For me, this meant that I was constantly trying to keep my dad on his feet and make sure he could continue to enjoy life.

In hindsight, I recognise this time as the process of "anticipatory grief" as it is called in the article "There’s no space for grief when you’re in your twenties", in which Jane Singer writes about the death of her father after reading the book of Lisanne Sadelhoff who lost her mother at a young age. They too conclude that saying goodbye actually starts much earlier and that the intense grief for the person you lose becomes a broken heart because that person is gone for good.

Resuscitate
My dad was doing better for a while after the stroke. Fortunately, he was enjoying himself again, and he felt better. Until he got an epileptic insult at the end of December last year. I called the emergency centre and was instructed to try and resuscitate him. That was an intense experience, which caused trauma. The switch flipped. After the heart failure, the diabetes, and the stroke, I had just carried on. I felt I had to do this to help my father. After the epileptic insult and the trauma of the resuscitation, this was just not possible anymore. I realised that I had to call in the help of my family doctor’s welfare worker. In addition, I sought contact with the study advisor, because I was afraid that this trauma and the pressure of informal care would have a bad influence on my studies. Until then, I had always been enthusiastic about my studies and worked hard to do everything on time and to get good grades.

The first appointment with the welfare worker was January 27th, and the day after that another trauma occurred. The day after my first appointment, January 28th, my father wanted to get medication from the family doctor on his bike and didn't come home anymore. My father had had a heart attack and fell off his bike. He was almost home, but he didn't make it. In the hospital they tried to resuscitate him and perform a percutaneous coronary intervention, but a few hours later he passed away anyway. After this, my life as a grieving student started in full.

Dealing with trauma
Here, the long road of mourning began in which I had to come to terms with my traumas and experience the intense grief. In spite of the mourning I had to go on with life. The day after the funeral, block three started and suddenly there was study material begging for my attention. I knew pretty soon that I wanted to start block three, because I wanted to avoid study delay at all costs. Luckily, I could follow block three from home, because I couldn't get myself to drive to the station and get on the train to go to the University. Besides not being able to go to the University because of my mental health, my view of the study programme had also changed completely. My enthusiasm changed and I even became very negative. Because of everything I had been through all these years, and especially in December, January and February, my studies felt like nothing. It didn't feel important anymore, just because the person who belonged to my future was suddenly ripped out of my life. The "what am I doing this for" feeling was huge, and it stayed that way for a long time. It became so bad that I started to consider whether I wanted to finish my studies at all or whether I would rather cry in bed for six months and accept the study delay.

The contact with both the welfare worker and the study advisor became even more intense as a result. It was nice to be able to discuss my problems and to discuss what was useful. The welfare worker taught me more about my personality and how I dealt with grief, which the study advisor and I could then apply in practice to my studies.

Responsibility
From the beginning of the mourning process, my mother and I have been together, which is very nice now. We talk a lot and process the events we have experienced together. I have lived at home from the start of my studies and we have been through all these experiences together, which makes the bond with my mother very good. My father's weak health is also partly the reason why I stayed home during my student days. I didn't want to leave my mother alone with all the care for my father and his health, so I felt a responsibility to stay with them in order to support them as best I could. Looking back on everything, I am also happy because I have been able to fully experience the time with my father all these years.

The further I got in the mourning process, the more I started to see the positive things again. I saw my studies as the goal of the day. I sat at home anyway and didn't want much. All the hobbies I had at first, such as reading and gaming, brought me no happiness anymore and sitting with some friends was too much to ask for. That's why I threw myself completely into the assignments that had to be done for my studies. I liked this. It distracted me. I didn't have to think about my deceased father for a moment, but could focus on a specific goal like writing an essay or reading an article.

Fellow students
What remained difficult for me was the contact with peers and classmates. I no longer felt part of the world. My view of the surroundings was completely changed by these big events. I had the feeling that I didn't understand anyone anymore and that they couldn't understand me either.

This gap between grieving students and other students was also described by Jane in her article and I recognised myself in this a lot. The gap made it difficult to meet people and face them. I also found it difficult to take online classes in block four all of a sudden. Because I was among my classmates again, I was forced to face the facts. They did what a student should do and felt what a student should feel, but I didn't have that. Making contact with classmates remained difficult. They experienced life very differently and that created a distance between us. The feeling "just let me be" was strong. I wanted what they had. I wanted to be a normal student.

By now it has been 4,5 months since I lost my father and still it's not easy. I still suffer a lot from stress and panic attacks and I am still often gloomy. It is a struggle to cope with the mourning and grief during your student days. Slowly but surely I have the feeling that grief and I are starting to understand each other. I know more and more what can and can't be done and when things go well and when things don't go at all.

Attending classes is still difficult and concentrating takes a lot of energy, but it is already better than it was. The welfare worker and study advisor have helped me intensively with this and I am sure they will continue doing so in the future. Being able to discuss my problems and fears feels very nice and helps me a lot.

For other mourning students or students who are informal caregivers like I was: you can do this and it gets better. It sounds so easy, but I know better than anyone that it's not. I didn't believe it at first either. How can I continue my life without my father? How am I supposed to enjoy life again? The end of mourning is not yet in sight, but every time there are things that go better, partly through trust in myself and partly through help from the welfare worker and study advisor. The grief remains, but every tear represents a beautiful memory. It is nice to see that I can carry on in spite of everything. After all, it is not for nothing that people still say this: What does not kill you makes you stronger.

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