Different degrees of sympathy: Judith Davies recalls how two universities responded to the sudden death of her son

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Indy Lifestyle Online
We had three sons. Our middle one did his degree at Sheffield University, where he spent three years, emerging the summer before last with a 2:1. He then went to Sussex University to do a postgraduate law course.

One night the doorbell rang at 11.15. We had gone to bed, and my husband was asleep. I went downstairs, and through the glass panels in the front door saw two policemen. I knew straight away it was one of the boys. Inside, they said: 'There's no easy way to tell you this.' I said: 'Please tell me quickly.' Our middle son had been found dead in his room, with no indication of how or why he had died.

I woke my husband and we tried to find out more. All the police could tell us was that the coroner's office would be open at 8.30 the next morning. They left. I phoned one of my sisters and our curate and her husband, who came round immediately.

After a sleepless night of thoughts in turmoil and total shock, the phoning began the next morning. Our son had died 200 miles from home, and we decided to travel to Sussex after spending this first dreadful day just telling family and friends.

I realised that the university must be told, little guessing that they already knew because our son had lived in a university-owned house. By mid-morning, I had received a call from our son's head of department expressing sympathy, offering help and acknowledging the emotional, practical and financial issues. I confided that our eldest son had vital professional exams in five days - how could he do these when his brother had died so tragically? He said, 'I'll take care of that', and saw that our eldest son's professor was informed of what had happened.

I said I did not see how we could afford the funeral without a refund of the fees our son had paid three weeks before. Cutting through red tape, a cheque for this rather large amount was given to us when we reached Sussex. At the end of this conversation, I put down the phone, thanking God that someone capable and compassionate was in charge.

The day passed somehow with a frenzy of packing, arrangements, putting petrol in the car and pushing into the luggage our son's last letter - an optimistic document enthusing about the staff at Sussex University. We arrived and were taken to the vice-chancellor's suite. Several staff who had known our son assembled, some of them deeply affected by the event. We read aloud our son's last letter. The head of department said that preliminary findings from the pathologist indicated that he had died of natural causes.

Our next appointment was with the coroner's officer. The post- mortem examination had established that our son had died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an inherited heart disease that can cause sudden death in young men. We were taken, at our request, to see his body - one of those moments, like the birth of children, the memory of which is always with you. Then we went to the registrar to give, impassively, those still-unbelievable facts, that our son had died at 22, at a particular place and of a particular cause.

Next day, we were escorted by staff from the university accommodation office to the dwelling where our son had died. The sun shone on the sea, visible from the Victorian terrace house. We were taken to his room and, with exquisite tact, left alone. We said a prayer aloud, just his name and a request that his spirit could rest in peace. All his possessions, that comprehensive flotsam students collect in even as little as three weeks, had been packed to save us additional distress. All, that is, except three beautiful, brilliant green house plants. Accommodation staff told us there was a plant sale he might have bought them at - but we suspected that the university had placed them there to console us.

When we returned home from this harrowing expedition, the head of department phoned us to see if we had got back all right, and the following week made a 500-mile round trip to attend our son's funeral. Flowers came from the students and faculty, and we received frequent calls that we found very supportive.

We opened the subject of planting a tree in our son's memory on the university campus. This idea was enthusiastically taken up. A year ago the ceremony, consisting of a memorial service and then the planting of a beech tree, took place. These symbolised for us our son's love of the country, his reverence for nature and new life to carry on from the one that was gone.

We offered to pay for the tree, but the university refused. They also provided lunch for friends and family who had travelled long distances.

During the months after our son's death, practical problems arose. He had taken out a student loan - his head of department found, to our relief, that we did not have to pay it back. He had signed a rental agreement for a telephone, and the accommodation office took over the whole business. He had bought some expensive textbooks: the university bookshop took them back and repaid their cost. The university doctor wrote, telling us as gently as possible that the family should be screened for the disease from which our son died.

It was impossible to fault Sussex University for generosity, compassion and sensitivity to our needs.

A few days after our son died, I asked a friend of his to break the news at Sheffield University. This was done, and I was therefore quite startled to receive some weeks later a questionnaire from the careers section addressed to our son and asking for details of his current occupation. I wrote explaining what had happened and received a formal acknowledgment. A few weeks later, more material arrived addressed to him, from the alumni department. I wrote again, wondering why there was no liaison between these parts of the university.

We did receive a letter of sympathy from our son's doctor at Sheffield, but we never received a line or a phone call from anyone in the faculty, although he had been a member of the university for three years. He had been at Sussex for three weeks, and the people there could not do enough for us.

Clearly, Sheffield saw itself as a plant for producing people with degrees, with no genuine interest in them after they had graduated. Sussex was deeply concerned with individuals and their needs, whether they were students or their parents. There was a recognition that a university was not only a seat of learning, but also a community that was able to reach out with love.

Perhaps the criteria by which universities are judged should include their handling of what has been for us, and surely for all families similarly afflicted, utter catastrophe.