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How I dealt with unexpected grief by Rosie Taylor

In 2015, I went to the University of Exeter, at its Falmouth campus, to study Zoology. I remember driving up the hill on moving-in day in September, just about ready to throw up, but smiling anxiously at my parents amongst a mish-mash of my belongings that we’d squeezed into the car.

Upon arriving, I was immediately overwhelmed, and just moving boxes into my allocated room felt like a lot to deal with. After a solid hour of running back and forth from the car to the flat, we had everything in, and as I was walking back inside with the final box, a head popped round the door at the end of the corridor with a huge grin on it.

This was how I met Bry, who was a new roommate and soon-to-be friend. She was one of those people that as soon as she walked into a room, there would be a little more joy and a little more laughter than there was before.

Over the course of the first year, we did the things that most flat-mates would – share a drunken pizza (or a steak during vegetarian month, in Bry’s case), dance, talk nonsense, stress about exams etc. She also tried (and failed miserably) to teach me to stand up on a surfboard. But she did encourage me to get a wetsuit, and now every time I go bodyboarding or sea swimming, I think of her.

First year came and went, and soon enough it was May, and we were all bidding our farewells to each other ready for the summer back home. I remember when I was leaving, only Bry could come and get breakfast with us on the morning, because she was the only one in the flat not disgustingly hungover from the night before. If she was, she did a great job of hiding it. Then my Dad drove me home, and I waved goodbye from the car at the handful of my flat-mates who I’d see again in September.

In mid-August I woke up to an early missed message from Bry’s twin sister, Sophie, asking to call her. I thought it was strange, because whilst we were of course friendly, we didn’t talk much on messenger. I called Sophie, and as soon as she picked up I knew that something was wrong. It wasn’t a long conversation, and frankly I don’t remember the details and wouldn’t want to recount them either. My friend had stayed round the previous night and so it only took her one look at me to realise that something serious had happened.

Bryony had unexpectedly passed away whilst on a trip doing conservation work abroad. I don’t remember my initial reaction, but I know that I was crying before I realised what was happening. I texted my parents, who were abroad at the time. Then I decided amongst the panic and processing, that I needed to go for a run. So I politely asked my friend to leave, got into my running gear, and made it about 200m from the house before I collapsed on the floor unable to breathe through sobbing.

I walked home, and sat in the shower for about an hour. I kept checking social media and the news – perhaps there had been some terrible mistake. Perhaps it was some sick joke and, come September, Bry would be walking around campus singing and laughing like usual. Maybe they’d just made a mistake. She was 19. It had to be a mistake.

I started wandering around my town late at night to avoid being by myself in the house. It made me feel like I was doing something even though there was nothing to do. It gave my mind some space outside to scream internally at the injustice of it all. To listen to music that I couldn’t listen to sat down because it was too painful, but allow myself the space to feel.

The funeral was difficult. My Mum drove me for about 4 hours to make sure I could go to say goodbye. It was one of the hardest days I’ve ever had to get through.

The next few weeks waiting to go back to Uni drifted into one, and soon it was time to pack up my things and go back. On one hand I was excited to be seeing friends again, and move into our new student house. But of course, there was also the reality that I’d be going back to face a town of memories with a friend who was no longer there with us. We attended a University Memorial for Bry, and there was a tree planted. I visited it last year, and every time I am on campus. It brings me hope. By some strange twist of fate, the last time I visited, by pure coincidence I bumped into Bry’s mum in a rather emotional catch up.

The first few months were the hardest. I’d look for Bry on nights out, before I’d remember. I had panic attacks every time we had group settings. I had panic attacks every time I heard funeral songs that were played. I still have a hard time listening to Mr Blue Sky.

We started to settle into our new student house, with 3 other wonderful previous flatmates. My friend Ellie and I ended up often finding comfort in sitting and watching each other play games on lazy afternoons. I can’t speak for Ellie, but I treasured those moments, as they were some of the only spaces I felt like I could breathe. Talking about Bry came more naturally when there was something else to focus on. We played Kingdom a lot. Whilst it was a relatively simple game, we spent hours in this beautiful pixelated world, getting absorbed by simply trying to reign this Kingdom.

This was when I started to dive back into the land of gaming. It’d always been a part of my life, but having it to use as a crutch when the whole world felt like it was turning grey was probably one of the reasons I made it through. Grief setback my mental health by a long way, and ultimately kickstarted a bout of depression, panic and anxiety all over again. Gaming allowed me a breather from that, and it’s why I’m so grateful to games like Kingdom – even in the darkest of days, games can provide a small light to ground you.

Grief is not, and will never be easy for me. I get lost in it. Often so much so that I don’t feel like myself anymore, like I’m just hovering around watching myself struggle. But there are ways to help push you through those especially difficult times. They can be games, or people, or moments of solitude, but finding what can help bring you back from that isolating mindset is important. I still struggle about losing Bry. Years later and I still remember how crushing it was when I first found out. It’s okay to lean on people. It’s okay to lean on hobbies.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve, it’s a journey that we all go on. Ultimately for me, it has to end in a celebration of life, rather than a hyperfixation on death, in order for us to get through it.

Rosie and Bry walking on the beach with a bodyboard and surfboard