Overcoming grief

Dealing with loss as a student

Illustration by Evan Brien

Illustration by Evan Brien

My grandfather, Stanley Bridge, died on Feb. 2, 2017. It was my father’s birthday.

Keeping up with schoolwork has been difficult for this past month, but dealing with the death of a loved one is not something that comes easy to anyone.

Unfortunately for me, though, I am practiced at dealing with this particular kind of stress.

Last year, on March 24, a very close friend of mine, Sheila Vuksanovich, died of cancer. She was 24 years old.

My mother and her father were actually classmates at SAIT in the 1980s and, by chance, I moved in across the street from her family when I was two years old. From that day on, she had been like a sister to me.

My earliest memory is of me running in circles around my house with Vuksanovich chasing me. I had just found out that there was a dinosaur called the ankylosaurus, and I was convinced that it had been named after me.

I was shouting, “Ankylosaurus! Ankylosaurus!” Vuksanovich was shouting, “An-sheila-saurus! An-sheila-saurus!” 

While we were still running, we got into an argument over whether or not an-sheila-saurus was an actual dinosaur. I remember a lot of arguments we had.

But I also remember sleeping over at her place, and staying up all night talking. I remember pretending to be asleep when her father checked in on us.

When I was told that she was given only a couple of weeks to live, I was devastated. 

I had never been speechless before. All I could do was stumble into my room and collapse into tears.

And, as is so common when dealing with death, I was wracked with guilt.

Vuksanovich had always been so much healthier than me. She ate healthy and exercised, while I shovelled junk-food down my throat and spent days at a time without leaving the house. 

And, more to the point, she was just generally a much better person than I was.

I deserved to get sick, not her. 

It was like she caught a bullet aimed at me, so it always felt like it was my fault that she got cancer.

For months I carried that guilt around like a stone, until I finally built up the nerve to open up about how I was feeling to my friends and family.

“The biggest piece of advice I can give to someone who is dealing with grief is to understand that you are not alone,” said Mitch Sparks, a second-year journalism student whose friend, Chris Tenz, died by suicide last year. “I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true. Many people are either dealing or have dealt with grief in their life, so you should never feel ashamed about how you are feeling.”

According to a 2016 study by the American College Health Association, 17.6 per cent of Canadian post-secondary students have experienced the death of a friend or family member in the last 12 months.

And, of the 7,578 students who lost a friend or family member in the last year, nearly 95 per cent described it as either traumatizing or very difficult to handle. More than 40 per cent had seen it negatively impact their grades.

“The nice thing about SAIT is the teachers really do seem to care about their students, so I always felt like if I had to I could approach them,” said Sparks.

But while he was mourning his friend, Sparks said he believed that if the people around him knew how much he was suffering that it would somehow burden them. 

What was actually happening, though, is something that many people who suffer from depression have faced, myself included. Sparks had rationalized a ruse.

He had come up with an excuse to let his wound fester, and found a way to frame it in such a way that made it seem selfless rather than selfish.

“I couldn’t stop crying,” said Sparks. “Everything reminded me of Chris and I didn’t know what to do.

“I kept thinking that I could have done more, that I should have focused more on how he was doing when we spoke.

When Vuksanovich was sick, I had convinced myself that if I told people how I felt that I was somehow making her illness about me. Even after she died, I felt that talking about my feelings would be, in some way, disrespectful to her memory.

But, Sparks eventually spoke up about what he was going through.

“It is incredibly hard to talk about, but I guess I found my breaking point,” said Sparks. 

“It was amazing how I felt the weight lift off my shoulders. I didn’t know how badly I needed it until it happened”

In January, an annual art gala that Tenz once started was relaunched in his memory, with the proceeds going towards suicide prevention.

Those of us that are left behind may never fully recover from the trauma we suffer, and I don’t know that I would want to.

But, we owe it to Vuksanovich, Tenz and Bridge that we continue to live our lives and that we don’t allow ourselves to remain broken from our losses.

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