Weike is working on a podcast about grief
Giving a voice to mourning students
Weike’s mother passed away on a Friday. The following Monday, Weike found herself at a concert in Amsterdam, standing there alone, listening to one of her favourite bands. ‘I thought to myself; what the hell am I even doing here? I hated everything, and life was so terrible, but it was also beautiful. I was just trying to be a person and not fall apart.’
Journalism student Weike van Koolwijk was only twenty-three when she lost her mother to breast cancer. ‘It all happened rather fast; she passed away after the summer and everything was a bit of a blur.’
She and her mum were close. They would go to festivals and on city trips together. ‘I could talk to her about anything, from big life decisions to boys. I always felt like she understood me, because I was so much like her. Losing her was pretty much the hardest thing I’ve ever had to experience. It was like losing a mirror to myself, a friend and a parent at the same time.’
She discovered that grieving students tend to be invisible. People around them are having fun, studying, partying, living. ‘You don’t know when there’s somebody in your class who has lost a parent, a brother, or a best friend. They might be going through it right now and you’d have no idea.’
I wanted to create something to help others feel less alone
Six years after her mum passed away, she decided to make her own podcast, Erna (‘After’), for young people in mourning. ‘I wanted to create something to help others feel less alone.’ The project is making her realise just how many people have lost a parent in their twenties. ‘People put on a happy face and just keep going.’ But they’re there. Weike wants to tell their stories as well as her own.
The first year was the hardest, she says now. She was doing a bachelor’s in primary education at the time. ‘I didn’t go to school for five weeks and when I returned to classes, I realised I wasn’t the person I used to be.’ She became critical and bitter about things that should have been nice and normal – she couldn’t enjoy them anymore. ‘I just mechanically went to my classes and my internship at a primary school, but all of my energy was gone.’
She soon faced half a year of study delay, but it took her a long time to realise she couldn’t continue the same way she used to. ‘One moment, you’re an adult and you can plan and do things and the next, you have no idea what to do.’ She felt like a toddler that didn’t know how to walk properly. ‘I was so exhausted and drained by things that shouldn’t have been exhausting. I just thought: this delay isn’t going to happen to me. I was afraid to surrender control.’
Old friends don’t mind if you start crying at random moments
When she finally did loosen her grip, much of the stress just fell away. ‘I started visiting my friends all around Europe’, she says. ‘It’s always nice to see old friends again, they don’t mind if you start crying at random moments.’ Weike’s aunt rented a table at an art studio for her. ‘One day a week, I would go to my space and I would draw and watch a few series. It was my own kind of therapy, it gave me comfort. I don’t even know what I made that year, but I felt free there.’
After that first year, things slowly started to settle down. She got a new internship at a different school and worked with kids with mental and physical disabilities. ‘I felt like I could do things again. I was still at a loss, but I could be more like the person that I remembered.’ But it has taken her until now, six years after her mother’s death, to really feel normal again, she says.
This, she realised, was something she could work with, as she’s now a journalism student. Her own story of loss and loneliness was worth telling. ‘I thought it would be really nice to let others know that they’re not alone in this. I want to make something for others and myself, just to show what kind of things you can go through when you lose a parent at this age.’
It hasn’t been an easy road, though. Her story is extremely personal, and she had to teach herself to share it. ‘I had to learn how to talk about it without crying.’ But she also realised she could learn from others.
Assume you will fail the semester and take those six months for yourself
‘There was this one guy who had been talking about his experience with his friends from the start. I interviewed him and the two friends that had been there for him. I saw how easy it was for them to talk about it and I was like: wow, so this is also a way to do it. I was just so amazed at these three guys.’
There are words to talk about grief, she discovered. Words she had not been able to find. ‘But he had, and he got back on his feet by talking to his friends. I got back on my feet with the passing of time and continuing what I was doing a little bit.’
Another student suggested asking close friends of the person who’d passed away to write a letter with a memory and send it to you. ‘I thought this was a great idea. You can’t make more memories and you can’t get them from the deceased anymore. With these letters, you can have something tangible.’
Everybody deals with grief differently, she now knows. ‘I’m not expecting to make a universal podcast, it’s going to be small moments of recognition for people who are having different experiences.’
However, it is important for everyone to take their time. To not expect to pass the next semester, for example. ‘Assume you will fail it and take those six months for yourself and don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s important to be kind to yourself. I forgot that. What is half a year of study delay if you’re going to be burnt out? It can seem daunting not having anything to do, but don’t push yourself. Be kind.’
Weike’s podcast is an ongoing project. She made one episode in March for her master programme and decided to continue on her own, but it will take her time to finish it because she wants to make sure everything is perfect. She started a crowdfunding project to finance the equipment, music accreditation, and time she needs to be able to continue her podcast. She raised over 2,000 euros so far and is currently interviewing people her age, as well as experts on mourning. When she’s finished her degree, the podcast should be up and running.
Weike is looking for people to interview: she wants to talk to people who have lost a parent between the ages of eighteen and their late twenties. ‘Everybody has a story that’s worth telling, so if you want to be a part of my project, reach out!’