Erin (now studying Management of International Social Challenges) saw a therapist when she was very young, after her father died. “I’ve now lived with him for eleven years, and without him for eleven years”, she says. After he died, she saw a grief counsellor. “I used to make clay models or drawings, to get the conversation going. I remember that I liked being there. In that sort of situation, it helps when people are kind to you, and she was very kind.”

Unconsciously following in his footsteps

Her second experience with a psychologist, years later, was much less positive. She went to see a psychologist when her dream study programme after secondary school turned out to be a disappointment. “All my life, I knew I wanted to study Medicine. It’s what I’d always been working towards. People would sometimes say to me: you must want to be a doctor because you couldn’t cure your father. Subconsciously, that might have been a factor.”

In any event, her father played an important role in her life as a student in Rotterdam in a variety of ways. Unconsciously, the choices she made led her to follow in his footsteps. “It’s as if it was meant to be. My father always said he wanted to grow old with my mother in a flat on the Meuse. And where did I go and live? In a flat with a view of the Meuse.” However, chance played a big role there. “Yeah, you never know who will choose you as a flatmate.” Another coincidence: “My parents met through the SSR-R student association. I really didn’t want to become a member at first, but I ended up joining because of my friends.”

Dissecting room

Erin was uncomfortable in her Medicine programme. “I found it stirred up quite a lot of feelings, particularly in the dissecting room. Many students faint or throw up on their first time in the room, which makes sense. But by the second or third time, most people start to enjoy it.”

That was not the case for Erin. “I felt like I was constantly being confronted with death. The smell was awful. And with each ‘specimen’, I couldn’t help but think: what kind of life did this woman have? Did she have children? What did she die from?”

“What disappointed me was that there was no mental health support. They just chuck you in the dissecting room and wish you luck. And I wasn’t the only one who had lost someone close to them. Luckily, I’m quite assertive. I went looking for support myself, first from the study advisor and then from the student psychologist.”


The visit to the psychologist was not a success. He wanted to expose her to her fears, so he sent her back into the dissecting room. “I understand the theory behind it, but I felt completely unsafe. I wanted to start by telling my story, but he just grabbed the standard form and that was the advice that came out of it. I would have welcomed an approach more tailored to my situation.”

In the end, Erin was forced to accept that Medicine was not the dream study programme she had expected. “I had to accept that I would never be able to cope with the combination of the dissecting room and the unhealthy, competitive atmosphere in Medicine. It made me really sad.”

At first, Erin saw the fact that she could not cope with Medicine as a defeat, but she now considers it a strength. “It made me accept who I am. Obviously, I have a highly sensitive streak. That’s why people often feel safe around me, they have the courage to tell me things, and that’s extremely valuable.”

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Image credit: Aysha Gasanova


It was around that time that the nightmares began, four or five times a week. “Because of that dissecting room, a lot of the old grief about my father resurfaced. The nights were terrible. It was so bad that there were times when I was afraid to sleep alone. In my nightmares, I was back in that dissecting room, or they were all about death. I would wake up crying.”

Erin sought help once more. She did not want to go back to the student psychologist, so she asked for a referral. “The waiting times were awful: I had to wait for seven months. All that time, I was going to bed terrified.”

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Standard plan

At last, she saw a psychologist with the Dutch Mental Healthcare Association. “I had to fill in questionnaires, which gave me the feeling it was all going to lead to another standardised treatment plan. So I tried to give extra explanations, but that was absolutely not what they wanted. Then came the diagnosis of unprocessed grief.”

She had the feeling that the psychologist only wanted to treat the symptoms, not the underlying cause of the unprocessed grief. “When I told her that, she felt attacked, as if I’d said she wasn’t doing her job properly. But I just wanted to get the right help. At the same time, you’re in a vulnerable position, because you’re dependent on someone like that. You’ve already waited seven months, and she is the only one who can help you at that moment. But we just didn’t click.”

The whole story

In the end, her mother made the decision for her. “She said, ‘We’ll find someone else’. She got a tip from an old friend about someone who worked privately but was affiliated with the Dutch Mental Healthcare Association. I went to see her, and after ten minutes I already felt at ease.” But she still had to wait – four months this time.

“That psychologist didn’t want to shove a standard treatment plan down my throat. She just said: tell me everything.” Over several sessions, Erin told her whole story. “Just to get it out of my system. After that, based on everything she’d heard, she was able to work out the best way to help me. And she always did so in consultation with me.”

In particular, the psychologist tried to work out where the nightmares were coming from. Erin discovered that she has fewer filters than most people. “For example, other people find it easy to learn under fluorescent lighting, but for me it’s just not going to happen. There’s too much light. Everything hits me hard. That’s what was happening in the dissecting room: the smell, how the other students handled it, my history… The nightmares were an expression of that overstimulation.”

Erin was told to do less and look after herself better. “Go for a walk in the woods, eat well, get more sleep. That will allow you to absorb those stimuli better and slowly build up your filters.”

According to this psychologist, the exposure therapy suggested by the student psychologist would not work for Erin. “It was only overstimulating me more. My instincts were right about that.”


On the advice of the psychologist, Erin wrote letters to her late father, for example about how certain songs reminded her of the funeral. “It made me extremely sad. As soon as I was alone, I burst into tears. At first I thought I was being silly. But later I realised that the tears just had to come out.”

She started playing the songs – the names of which she prefers to keep to herself – on a regular basis. “I started to really listen to those songs, so I could find the meaning in the lyrics. I felt kind of comforted by my father. In a way, I was getting to know him a little better, eleven years later.”


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A poem about her father. Image credit: Erin van Gestel

It did not end with letter-writing. Erin also started writing poems. “I’ve got enough for a book now.” That is becoming a reality: the letters and poems are going to be published. “I also had a diary from when my father was sick, and I put that in there too. My sister is now working on the illustrations for the book.” Her sister, like her grandmother, mother and aunt, plays an important role in her life. “My army of women, I call them. I get a lot of strength from my bond with them.”

Erin hopes her fellow students will have the courage to be more open about how they are feeling. “Most of my peers don’t think about their feelings much. Or maybe they’re not ready to think about them. I try to help – through my year club, for example. When they ask me how I’m doing, I always give an honest answer. Then I find that they do the same. That’s brought us closer together. Of course, I don’t spend my entire day having deep conversations, but for the people who are important to me, I make sure I know how they’re really doing.”


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