Milly (second from left) hosting a meetupLet's Talk About Loss Cambridge

University move-in day is a milestone for all Cambridge students. Some pose for photos by cloisters and staircase nameplates, shared on Facebook by proud parents. Others cling to siblings, not wanting the final goodbye hug to end. Stories are shared with new friends in those first weeks about your home, your family, and where you come from. Being away from your family for possibly the first time means connection to your roots feels more important than ever before.

Everyone will assume you’ve got parents. It can be awkward to reveal that you don’t

But this isn’t the case for all students, points out Milly Stubbs, host of the Cambridge branch of Let’s Talk About Loss, an organisation which arranges meet-ups for bereaved 18-35 year-olds. Those initial weeks can pose more of a challenge for students who’ve lost someone close to them: “Everyone will assume you’ve got parents.” It can be awkward to reveal to so many new people that you don’t. Other students lose relatives during their time at Cambridge, and getting that phone call whilst in the library or your uni room brings a whole host of challenges.

There’s still an awkwardness hovering over conversations around grief, particularly in the student demographic, where it’s relatively uncommon. Varsity Lifestyle spoke to Milly to find out more about how grief fits into university life, and the support available through Let’s Talk About Loss meetups.

What might life look like for students who have faced unexpected bereavement?

Milly was clear that this is different for everyone. Many keep feelings about bereavement private. It can be difficult to share heavy feelings with new people at university: “They might not want to make people feel bad,” Milly said. The awkwardness around grief can go both ways, it seems. So how do we open up these conversations?

What might bereaved students need from friends whilst at university?

Milly stressed that no matter how awkward you might feel, if someone shares a bereavement with you, whether recent or historic, “don’t shut off the conversation.” Being open is the most important thing. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know what to say,” she told me. Sitting with the awkwardness and accompanying your friend in their sadness is a skill which will be appreciated.

Sitting with the awkwardness is a skill which will be appreciated

Even if someone doesn’t want to talk straight away, showing openness to listen and talk in the future is what counts. Milly said most people respond to death with sympathy alone, and are unsure what to say next. “It’s rare, but more supportive, to say something like, 'I'd love you to tell me about so-and-so… what were they like?'” Nothing you can say will change what's happened, so it's important to acknowledge how painful it is, and simply to be with your friend through it.

Milly stressed that whilst practical duties for a bereaved person might dwindle with time, the fact of grief doesn’t. And so, she said, check in regularly. “If you can, pick up on anniversaries; write the date in your phone calendar.” Reach out on occasions which might be hard, like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, “because it’s just in your face.” Don’t presume that your friend is struggling, because they might not be. Instead, start with an open question: “I know Christmas is coming up, I don’t know how you feel about it, and I just wanted to check in.”

It's not all about discussing grief, though. “Some people want a complete distraction,” she said. Continuity can be a blessing, too: if there’s an activity historically unique to your friendship, “keep going, or at least keep asking your friend if they want to keep going.”

Let's Talk About Loss Cambridge

It's not uncommon for people to cope with trauma with jokes and dark humour. As an onlooker, this might make you feel awkward and unsure of what to say. How can someone navigate this?

“It’s a difficult balance,” Milly said, but the important thing is to stay humble, and to understand that there’s no right thing to say. Again, it’s no bad thing to feel awkward, and it’s okay to laugh along. But Milly stressed that it’s important not to reciprocate too hard, because it’s insensitive. If you do say something you regret, it’s better to address it — to acknowledge that something you said came out wrong, and you’re sorry.

What do meetups involve?

Despite the name, Let’s Talk About Loss meetups aren’t limited to discussing grief — and neither does Milly want it to be that way. “We’re not trained counsellors, we’re just peers that have similar experiences,” she said. The group might gather at a pub or café, or do something more active like bowling. When the weather is nicer, meetups move outdoors, for a walk or picnic. “There’s no pressure to open up — some people find it beneficial just to listen,” Milly said.

Let's Talk About Loss Cambridge

Anyone is welcome at meetups. University life is often the chapter in which we’re starting to lose grandparents and other elderly relatives. But Milly pointed out that “the bereavements that are too soon are so much harder to get your head around,” so the group typically attracts people who have lost someone too young. The main thing is that it’s useful to be able to ask if anyone else has gone through the same thing and share experiences — conversations about grief with people who've gone through the same thing are useful, but so, too, is sensitive support from friends.