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Higher education students are reluctant to seek support for grief

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Episode 9: Learning and Normalising Bereavement

How bereavement affects young people

Nature provides us with a wealth of material that we can use in talking about life cycles

Dr Sukhbinder Hamilton, Senior Lecturer

says Dr Hamilton. But through working in primary schools, she noted distraction techniques were more likely to see used by teachers working with bereaved children. She also noticed negative labels given to children who appeared to be grieving beyond the timelines their teachers and peers deemed appropriate.

The lack of knowledge and tools for managing this had always been something Sukh had found strange, but when her own son died suddenly, she saw first hand how her teenage daughter had to navigate bereavement in this social context. That was when she decided she had to do something.

It became very evident to me that a number of the teachers and in fact, her friendship circles had put a time limit on when she was allowed to grieve. If we want a better society, we need to make sure that what happened to my daughter doesn't happen to other children.

Dr Sukhbinder Hamilton, Senior Lecturer

Spurred to change the narrative around bereavement on all levels, Sukh believes that normalising conversations around death from early in life whilst training teachers and caregivers can help remove the issues unresolved grief can cause later on, such as causing some people to wonder what the point was in further education.

Is grief an illness?

But what about those who do choose to take higher education? Sukh says every transition can create new reflections and experiences of a bereavement university wellbeing services could provide vital support here. She asked volunteers from the student union to come forward and share their experiences of bereavement. What she found was surprising:

The students themselves did not view themselves as needing support from the wellbeing services. They felt that they were not ill and therefore bereavement didn't warrant well-being services.

Dr Sukhbinder Hamilton, Senior Lecturer

Given the dramatic impact, grief can have upon an individual to focus, concentrate and carry out day-to-day tasks, Dr Hamilton thinks this warrants further research. She found that students were reluctant to even classify grief as a reason for applying for extensions on work due.

Further exploration needed

Sukh’s other work looks at gender and British Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women. It was this background that caused her to notice another trend: the self-selecting volunteers for her study were predominantly female, and all white. This raises the question of where taboo and cultural belief can be further limiting men and ethnic minorities from reaching support services where available.

As a result of this research, Sukh has suggested introducing peer-support groups for bereaved students and training for tutors and course leaders on how to have conversations and help provide support to students experiencing bereavement at this level. She also supports the need for further education and tool-sharing amongst teachers and caregivers handling grief in younger children.

You don't ever stop grieving. You will always grieve. But what you learn to do is you learn to build around that and you put support structures in place that allow you to be able to deal with it.

Dr Sukh Hamilton, Senior Lecturer

Episode transcript:

Anna Rose: You're listening to Life Solved, the podcast that explores new research from the University of Portsmouth that's changing our world for the better. Today, we hear from Dr Sukh Hamilton on her work with bereavement in young people.

Sukh Hamilton: It is a very, very individualised process. No two people will experience bereavement in the same way.

Anna Rose: Dr Hamilton's work has given her an insight into the experiences of young people and the life-impacting problems bereavement can create where there isn't sufficient support.

Sukh Hamilton: Having spoken to the children and they were sort of saying, oh, no. Well, I'm not going to go to university. What's the point? Because you don't know what's going to happen around the corner. So that sense of stability had been taken away from these children.

Anna Rose: Bereavement is a natural life experience. So why do so many adults struggle to manage the enormous impact of grief when it occurs? And how can we all participate in a cultural revolution by talking to our children about this difficult topic?

Anna Rose: Dr Sook Hamilton teaches in the School of Education and Sociology here at the University of Portsmouth. Her primary interests are in the voices of children and young people.

Sukh Hamilton: My interest started with younger children and being able to enable people to actually listen to their voice when those children have experienced bereavement. But I have also looked at, more recently, at university students and their bereavement journey.

Anna Rose: Sukh has recently published a report into bereavement support at university level too. Looking at extenuating circumstances forms submitted by students, she noticed some hesitancy in citing bereavement as a genuine reason for needing an extended deadline. Her aim was to explore current services and to propose better ways of supporting grieving students. The headline was taboo is not helping us.

Sukh Hamilton: Actually, they should be upset about it be

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