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Higher education students are reluctant to seek support for grief

  • 06 April 2021
  • 24 min listen

Bereavement can make young people less inclined to go to uni. Meanwhile, grieving young people are being let down by our culture of taboo on the subject, according to a University of Portsmouth researcher./p>

Dr Sukhbinder Hamilton has a unique insight into the way young people learn about grief. She’s worked in primary schools and has also led research into the way grieving university students are using wellbeing services.

She tells us why we need to change the way we discuss and manage bereavement in the latest episode of our podcast, Life Solved.

You can listen to Life Solved on all major podcast players, whether via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or other apps. Just search for 'Life Solved' and press the subscribe button.

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 because they've experienced a major loss. The research essentially found that we need to look at bereavement, not as a taboo subject. One of the key messages seemed to be that we need to be more open. And in fact, this message is true for all of the research I've done in this area that, you know, quite often we regard it as a taboo subject. We regard death as a taboo subject. And the reality is it's part of the human life cycle. We're born, we live, we die. But we tend to gloss over that because we don't want to be reminded of our own mortality. And so because we gloss over that, we tend to have a very reactive approach towards death and bereavement, particularly where children and young people are concerned because we want to protect them. You know, rightly so. You-- you don't want children to feel more anxiety and stress than they need to.

Sukh Hamilton: The problem is that children grow up and if they haven't been given the correct structuring, scaffolding, nurturing, to be able to talk through the experiences and emotions that they're feeling. If we've just taught children and young people not to talk about these things, then what happens is that we end up effectively creating a whole host of mental health difficulties because rather than opening up humans, people are used to internalising.

Anna Rose: It turns out that even getting to university is a big leap for young people who have been bereaved earlier in life.

Sukh Hamilton: Young people who experience bereavement do then have an altered sense of self, and there is less likelihood of them aspiring to do so-called normal things like go to university. And we also know that, you know, for example, there's some data that Child Bereavement UK accumulated in 2016 that said that something like 90 percent of children who had been bereaved in their sample felt that they had been inadequately supported or not supported at all.

Anna Rose: In addition to that shocking statistic, Sukh says, we have a cultural lack of understanding about the multitude of ways in which people can grieve and at different life stages, too.

Sukh Hamilton: It is quite possible and realistic for a person to experience bereavement in a multitude of ways, at different points in their life journey. And in fact, for a young person to be bereaved of a parent, they will experience that bereavement at every point in their transition, you know, different transitions and their journey. So when they, for example, going from primary to secondary school, they will experience something different. When hormones kick in, when they get married, when they go to university, all the different life stages bring different emotions. And if you don't know that, you know, it can be quite-- it can be something that you're dismissive of.

Anna Rose: In making the topic of death an acceptable part of everyday conversation, Sukh also thinks we need to rethink the timelines we place upon bereavement.

Sukh Hamilton: I think there is this misunderstanding of bereavement and bereavement processes. There is this assumption based on recency, OK? And what is perceived is that you're allowed a certain time frame within which to grieve. But as human beings, we are complex animals and we don't all experience bereavement in the same way. And in fact, children experience bereavement in a completely different way to adults. And that when you think about death and you think about the different types of deaths, you know, so the sudden death or the traumatic death or the death at the end of a long illness, the-- the death of somebody who's elderly as opposed to the death of somebody who's very young, all of these are very different and result in different feelings and emotions.

Anna Rose: Sukh asked for anyone who had experienced bereavement to come forward via the Students' Union. She noticed one thing immediately.

Sukh Hamilton: We had a number of people come forward, but it was predominantly women, which actually highlights that men find it even harder to talk about. So if you're male and a student, it obviously is something that's much harder to discuss. And if you are then internalising those emotions, it's going to lead to other complications. And the other thing that was really interesting was that there was a very marked difference in the way support was given to them from personal tutors, for example. Whereby a lot of personal tutors were unsure of how they could support and so would signpost them to the wellbeing services, which is essentially a standalone hub, or would suggest that they apply for a extenuating circumstances, which wasn't necessarily what they wanted and it wasn't the most appropriate course of action.

Sukh Hamilton: And so the key finding really, and this is something that's going to warrant more research, is looking at separating out because the-- the extension you need for a broken leg is very different to the understanding and empathy you're going to need for an ongoing traumatic life-changing event such as bereavement.

Anna Rose: So with a well-equipped range of wellbeing services such as counselling available, what was stopping students reaching out in those areas?

Sukh Hamilton: 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 wellbeing. Seeking something like counselling also seemed to be stigmatised as being accessed by people who were unwell, by people who had mental health difficulties and this stigma around what's perceived to be a mental health difficulty. But actually, as a human being, we all experience mental health difficulties and we know that communication and open dialogue is a really useful way of being able to navigate that tricky water, if you like.

Anna Rose: If students who self-identified as bereaved and came forward for research did not feel the support services available were enough, then what about all those who did not come forward? Sukh began to ask questions about what individuals would actually find helpful if counselling or talking therapies felt like too big a step?

Sukh Hamilton: Actually, what we found was that it could be just as little as giving them the space to be able to say, at the moment, I can't think straight. Can you give me some techniques I can employ to be able to access information more easily and retain that information more easily? But it's that open dialogue that was the issue that they-- they just didn't feel they were able to come forward and say that. It wasn't that the personal tutors weren't capable. It was that the students themselves didn't feel able to share that information without feeling that they were in some way lacking.

Sukh Hamilton: We need to fine-tune our listening so that we're actually hearing what's being said to us and hearing without feeling levels of discomfort, because it's something that we're not comfortable talking about. So it is about providing that training to be able to say, OK, I might not have experienced bereavement, but I can still be empathetic to you and what you are experiencing. And also acknowledging that we're not experts all the time, but it is about being good enough because the reality is students see that. They can see if somebody is wanting to support rather than shut down the conversation. And of course, there is the other side as well, actually, whereby you can be overly supportive. And so therefore you're actually smothering that person's ability to be able to function because you are putting in too much support so that they're not having to then do any navigating by themselves. So it is a very fine line.

Anna Rose: How else can we prevent future bereaved young people from dismissing or downplaying the impact of grief upon their lives, studies and perspectives? Sukh has suggested that peer support groups could be an effective way to create comfortable spaces for bereaved students to share experiences without the labels of wellness or taboo. But early years work can have a long term positive impact on adult mental health too. Normalising death whilst offering vital tools and coping strategies.

Sukh Hamilton: 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. And what we need to do as a society is to teach people, and particularly children, how to be able to do that. What are those tools that we can give them that allow them to be able to have that emotional literacy, to be able to self regulate? But just in being able to understand that --that pain in the pit of your stomach, you know, that-- that reluctance to get up that morning, that-- that sudden flush of tears, these are all normal responses.

Sukh Hamilton: So like when we think about behaviour and fight and flight. When somebody is experiencing that flight mode and the fact that the thinking part of the brain sort of shuts down, if you like, in the reptilian part of your brain comes to the foreground and you're very much about instincts. When you're grieving, you're in that mode and over time, you learn to be able to level it out.

Anna Rose: Sukh's drive to ensure children are provided with open communication channels around death and loss started when she was working in primary schools but became more personal after her own tragic bereavement.

Sukh Hamilton: I'd gone into a classroom to effectively monitor somebody's teaching. And so I was sitting at a table and one of the children on the table said to me, do you know what my-- my nana died yesterday? And I said, Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that, you know. And I and I spoke to the child and I just said, how are you feeling? And we had this conversation. And then the class teacher came over and I just said, oh, and I said the child's name, was just telling me some important news, some sad news in her life. And so the child told the class teacher and the class teacher said, oh, that's really sad. OK, how have you got on with that maths problem? And just like that, it was a sign to the child that her time of speaking about this incredibly huge thing that happened in her life, bearing in mind she was only six, that there was a time frame within which she could talk about it. For me, that was deeply problematic.

Sukh Hamilton: And about two years later, my son died very suddenly. And for me, as you can imagine, losing a child is everyone's worst nightmare, so, I and my husband were grieving, but our daughter, who is four years older than our son, our daughter was at a very tricky age. You know, it's time of hormones. She was 14 and she was experiencing all sorts of things. She was at secondary school. And it became very evident to me the-- the-- a number of the teachers and in fact, her friendship circles had put a time limit on when she was allowed to grieve. And beyond that time frame, so with her friendship circle, it was three months actually. And beyond three months, if she started to cry or so, for example, she was in a class and the teacher had put on School of Rock it-- and she didn't know it was coming. It was her brother's favourite film and she ran out of the classroom because it was that fight or flight thing. She was labelled as attention-seeking. But actually, she hadn't had time to get used to the idea that this was coming. And so for me, it was really interesting how lacking in knowledge the staff particularly were, and I felt I needed to do something. I needed-- if we want a better society, we need to make sure that what happened to my daughter doesn't happen to other children. So hence my journey.

Anna Rose: Sukh observed teachers and other children making judgements on whether her daughter's grief or experience was appropriate. This came to a head when the family booked a trip away for their first Christmas without her son, Bill. Sukh's daughter had the time signed off by various school heads, only to be embarrassed and undermined when the communication didn't get through to one department head.

Sukh Hamilton: My daughter came home a couple of days later and said, Dr So-and-so at school said to me in front of the whole class, you are really taking the mickey, you shouldn't be taking time off in the middle of a school term. I'm not going to sign this. And so clearly the communication admin got through to her. And that, for me was problematic because I was a parent who had been really proactive. But there were a lot of children in school experiencing things that had no champion, if you like. You know, my daughter was lucky enough to have me as a champion. If a very good school is still experiencing difficulty in its relationships with its students and particularly in developing emotional literacy in their students and in fact, one could argue in their staff, we then need to be thinking, well, what's happening in schools that aren't deemed to be good schools?

Anna Rose: Sukh became involved in a local charity where she noticed the lack of diversity in individuals taking up support.

Sukh Hamilton: They were white spaces of white middle-class children whose parents had accessed this additional support for them. Which then led me to think, well, what's happening for those children who aren't in that category? And so one of the things that I did decide was that 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? There's no point in going to university. 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: This trend worried Sukh, who then set up a three day workshop showcasing university studies with storytelling opportunities to help young people explore themselves through art, technology and writing.

Sukh Hamilton: One of the issues with bereavement is that your sense of self is tilted off its axis. The person you thought you were and the trajectory you thought you had are all brought into question. And what we need to try and do is to readdress that, rebalance that and not say that this trajectory is for this normal person, but actually that, you know, a bit idealistic, but you can be anything you want to be as long as we can support you to get there. And it's about making sure that those support mechanisms are there and it's about making sure that we enable these young people to realise that it is an attainable aspiration. Just because one bad thing happened in their life doesn't mean that that's where they are doomed to then live.

Anna Rose: So how can we tackle conversations about death with children even if they haven't yet experienced a bereavement? Sukh shared her advice on how to approach the topic, acknowledge and validate emotion, and importantly, help children choose healthy responses.

Sukh Hamilton: What we should be doing is looking at life cycles. Nature provides us with a wealth of material that we can use. And talking about life cycles, talking about seasons, talking about the fact that this happens all the time, and it's OK, it's OK, it is part of the natural order of things. But also letting young people know that all emotions are valid. And I think this is all part of being very emotionally literate. Letting young people know that all emotions are valid. However you're feeling is valid. You're allowed to be upset. You're allowed to get angry. You're allowed to cry. And that validation of that emotion at that moment in time is really important, because what you're saying is these are natural human responses. But what you also need to do is to be able to say, yes, you are feeling these emotions, but equally, it's how you react on that emotion. So, yes, by all means, feel angry. But let's not lash out, for example, let's not hurt somebody else physically. Let's not internalise those depths of sadness that you feel. Let's open up. Let's talk about it. Let's talk about the person who's died.

Sukh Hamilton: Giving them the language to be able to express the emotions they're feeling. So that emotional barometer and I think as human beings, we don't support children enough in developing that barometer. Yeah? And using rich and varied language for that.

Anna Rose: By normalising death and loss as part of the life circle in early years and supporting children of all ages in expressing their experiences across their own individual time frames, Sukh thinks that we can challenge the negative long term impacts upon a child's future. Her research, working with contemporary university students, will also be continuing to another phase when she will be establishing peer support groups and working towards training for supporting staff too.

Anna Rose: You can find out more about her work and that of all our other University of Portsmouth researchers online at And the latest edition of our magazine Solve is out now. You can find it on the website using forward slash Solve.

Anna Rose: We'll be back next time for our Fashion Revolution Week special.

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