By Lottie Swinyard
May 21st 2015; the day before I sat a final year university exam and was scheduled to sit another the next day.
Yet there I was sat on a train en-route back home, not exactly sure what to expect when I arrived. I had known for four years that my dad had cancer however it never really sunk in that he was going to die, not even when I watched it happen.
Many people describe university life as living in a ‘bubble’ which was very accurate to my experience, though my university bubble was often burst when the reality of what was happening at home hit me.
In an attempt to keep my bubble intact I didn’t tell anyone at university about the complications at home and on the odd occasion it was mentioned I certainly did not expand on it. This resulted in a very bipolar and isolated experience.
I had a great time during my degree and had many fun times but on the flip side to that I spent nights crying into my pillow trying to stay as quiet as possible so no-one could hear me. I also had sporadic outbursts of emotion that must’ve seemed extremely strange to my friends.
This bottling up of my feelings resulted in me developing anxiety and experiencing panic attacks. I can’t say whether this anxiety wouldn’t have arisen if I expressed myself more but I unquestionably don’t think it helped anything.
I had many people to talk to – housemates, home friends, tutors – but I didn’t utilise any of them in fear of making the situation more serious than I wanted to admit. Even up to the day my Mum called saying I needed to come home as my dad was getting worse, I still thought I would be back to complete my exams in no time at all. Although this wasn’t the case, he died within 18 hours of my sister and I getting home.
The fact I never accepted the gravity of the circumstances or talked about it made the weeks after his death very surreal and delayed the start of my grieving. I had to first process what had happened before I could even start dissecting my reaction to it. In the coming weeks and months I had no choice but to face it. I clearly remember standing in the shower practising saying ‘My dad has died’ to force it to sink in so I didn’t stutter and go silent when trying to explain why I had to leave my exams.
Three years have now past and I still don’t find it easy talking about what happened but I am a hell of a lot better and I am so glad I am. Talking about it helps me let people into my experiences and understand it, along with allowing me to let go of some of the built up emotion.
It is a lot easier talking to friends that have also lost a parent as there is no chance of making them feel awkward or them pitying me, they can relate to every stage of the grief of losing a parent and they know that it’s not worse than any other type of grief but different and unique. I have also reached the place where I talk about my dad in past tense rather than present (which I still slip up on when meeting new people and don’t want to talk about it).
Telling stories about my dad is so important to me to keep his memory alive and feel close to him and everything he gave me. He was a scientist (as am I) therefore I can be hard on myself as I feel if I’m not working hard enough I am not doing him justice. These negative thoughts often creep into my head and try to affect my work but it only makes my accomplishments so much sweeter knowing I did it for him.
After all this time my anxiety hasn’t been cured but I have created ways of dealing with it. One day a couple of years ago I promised myself I would never let anxiety stop me doing anything I wanted to do and I have lived up to that promise. A combination of talking to loved ones, facing up to what has happened and being a bit kinder to myself has resulted in me being able to live a life I believe would make my dad proud.