Difficult Conversations

Jacob Billington graduated in Geography from Sheffield Hallam in 2019. He was overjoyed to have been successful in his application for a year-long graduate internship working with the Library team. Over the summer of 2020, he worked on developing the University’s welcome communications for new students, welcoming them to our socially distanced provision. At the end of August 2020, he was tragically killed in a knife attack in Birmingham. Some weeks ago, a member of the University’s Estates team was diagnosed positively with Covid. He was a long-serving member of staff, with over thirty years’ experience. Just over a week ago, he died. One of our newest colleagues and one of our longest-serving colleagues: these deaths devastate family, friends and colleagues and we are all made poorer by them.

Sheffield Hallam is a large community, of 32000 students and 4500 staff. Inevitably, in a community of nearly 40000 students, each year we suffer bereavements amongst both staff and students.   These are invariably sad. Some are expected, after long illness. Others are unexpected – the result of car accidents, perhaps. The loss of a young life such as Jacob’s in a violent attack is especially shocking. Each year there are those who, tragically, take their own lives.

When I became Vice-Chancellor, I was clear that I had a responsibility to make direct contact by telephone with bereaved families following the news of a student death. For obvious reasons these are never phone calls I look forward to. Fortunately, my colleagues are generous and professional in the preparation of notes to support me – especially the university’s multi-faith chaplain, Helena Roulston, and our Director of Student and Academic Services, Joe Rennie. The notes contain information about the student, or member of staff’s experiences with us, and, if we know, some more details about both the circumstances of death and the situation of the family. Given the complexity of modern life, there is sometimes more than one call to be made. Some families have been estranged from the deceased person, which can be particularly difficult.

Despite all the support, I always approach the calls with some trepidation. I understand that I am intruding. The families don’t know me. I catch them at a painfully vulnerable time, when they are coming to terms with the loss of a family member and have not yet begun, in the phrase, to process their grief. I am a name, occupying a remote role, with a curious job-title. Many of the families may not quite understand what my job-title means, nor what I do. But I feel that it is my responsibility on these occasions to represent the University. It is important to make contact, and to be willing to listen.

I am rarely right to fear the conversations. I encounter grief, loss, sometimes anger. I encounter tears. I encounter people who want to talk, and some who don’t – which I obviously respect. Some of the conversations are short; more of them go on for some time. Some focus on the deceased, others move beyond the deceased. Many of the bereaved talk about the power of relationships established at Sheffield Hallam; for our students, this is a powerfully formative time. Our conversations explore deep friendships, the care and attention of teaching staff, the commitment and dedication of professional and support staff. Some of the conversations become deeply philosophical. In two recent conversations, we have talked about the memories which family members wanted to hold most dear about the deceased, and as we did so became almost relaxed with each other and I talked about losses in my own family. In almost all of the conversations we find points of contact and shared emotion. In most of them, although I start as a representative of the university, as discussions develop, I speak as a parent, a partner, a brother or a son. Despite the apprehensions I have when I begin to key in the number for the call, I never regret having had the conversations, however painful or challenging some are. They are almost always humbling.

Universities are, of course, about potential and possibility, about creating opportunity through research and teaching. Perhaps that is what makes so poignant the lost opportunities which each student death means. There are always questions about what might have been. These questions, of course, won’t ever go away. There is a devastating quotation in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The novel tells the story of a character whose mother is killed in a bomb blast: “Every new event”, writes the narrator “everything I did for the rest of my life—would only separate us more and more: days she was no longer a part of, an ever-growing distance between us. Every single day for the rest of my life, she would only be further away.” Except, of course, that, as the partner of one of our students who passed away said to me, “he will always be with me”.

The richness of any community lies in its difference and diversity, in how it values what it loses as well as what it gains. I learn things about the university from these calls. I learn about the small things which make a difference, the friendship groups and the commitments of people to each other. Inevitably I learn about the things we didn’t do well just as much as about the things we did successfully. All that shapes the way we think about supporting our staff and our students, especially through difficulty. It may sound curious, but I feel privileged to have had the opportunity make these calls. I have learnt things about illness, about challenge, about stress, about loss, about hope, about love, about families, and, as a result about myself.

2 thoughts on “Difficult Conversations

  1. Thank you. I think it is a very good initiative.

    For students, can I suggest you also encourage a staff member who knew the to also speak to the family?


  2. This blog has sent shivers down my spine.
    Thank you for sharing so honestly how and why, these difficult conversations are so important.
    I am so proud to work for a University that cares.

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