Students Coping with Grief & Loss at School

Expert Advice on Recognizing Symptoms of Grief, Accepting Loss & Getting Help

Grief after a deeply-felt loss can range from a sadness that lingers, always hovering in the background, to a total emotional upheaval that turns your entire world upside down. For the typical person, dealing with a loss can be one of the most difficult things to get through. But for a college student, it can be even more complicated. College life is a period of drastic change, with a tremendous amount of growth and maturity at times tinged with confusion, fear, pressure and the thrill of newfound independence. Throw grief into the mix, and it’s easy to understand how difficult it can be to handle the huge spectrum of emotion that a college student might experience. This guide aims to provide a solid rock of support for grieving students and those who care about them.

Experiencing Grief in College & Meeting Your Immediate Needs

If your grief is causing a crisis situation and you don’t know which way to turn, there is immediate help.

The Crisis Text Line serves anyone, in any type of crisis, providing access to free, 24/7 support and information via text. Here’s how it works:

  • Text START to 741741 from anywhere in the USA, anytime, about any type of crisis.

  • A live, trained crisis counselor receives the text and responds quickly.

  • The volunteer crisis counselor will help you determine your next move.

When you are confronted with loss, your immediate action might be entirely different than what you imagined. You might be stoic and feel numb, you might be overwhelmed with emotion, or you might fall somewhere in between. You might even be hit with denial and anger.

Before you do anything else, take a deep breath. Let the emotion come if it’s going to, and take a moment to deal with that. You want to be thinking as clearly as possible before you take on the next steps. Now might be a good time to reach out to a friend who can support you through the first difficult hours.

Once you are in a place where you can think clearly and understand what has happened, there are some steps to take to get through this.

Take care of yourself

When loss occurs, the crucial and immediate thing you must do it take care of yourself in the aftermath. If you need to lock yourself in a room for the night and cry, do it. If you need to go for a run or lift weights, have at it. You will find a way to deal with this, both consciously and subconsciously. Remember that everyone deals with grief in their own way; as long as you’re not putting yourself or others in danger, there is no wrong way to grieve.

 
Take steps to find support

Getting news of a loss while you’re at school might mean that you are dealing with a tragedy while far away from home, friends, and family and feeling cut off from your regular support system. You may need to reach out, but support is out there. Call your friends back home, get in touch with a sibling, or turn to your new college friends for help. If you feel out of control or so distraught that you can hardly think straight, reach out to your school’s medical center or clinic – someone there will know how to help you.

 
Identify any immediate responsibilities

There may be immediate, time-sensitive responsibilities that only you can handle. For example, does the tragedy involve the death of a loved one, and you’re the administrator or executor of their estate? If so, you might need to get in touch with your family’s attorney as soon as possible. As an executor or administrator, you’ll also probably be in charge of burial arrangements and carrying out last wishes.

 
Deal with your academic life

Depending upon the loss, you might need to take some time away from your studies. Some schools have formal bereavement absentee rules for students who need to take time off from school to handle certain matters. Regardless of whether a school has a formal bereavement policy, you’ll need to notify your class professors if your usual schedule will be disrupted. They can help with issues like missing class, postponing a test or turning in a paper late. Some teachers will be happy to serve as a sounding board to help you through the loss.

 
Understand what shock means

Shock is often the first reaction to a tragedy. Shock can be thought of as an extreme psychological reaction to severe stress. It can include emotional numbness, detachment, flashbacks or nightmares of the event, feelings of nausea and weakness, anxiety, and even a fight-or-flight response. But just as grief is a very individual thing, so is shock; some might be “textbook” while others might have their own unique experience with that initial reaction.

Taking Care of Your Mental Health & Getting Help for Grief

People always find a way to deal with grief, both in the short and long term. The question becomes how effective their coping mechanisms are for the long haul. For example, does the coping help you move on? Or does the grief linger and become debilitating and harmful? To manage grief over the long term, keep these tips in mind.

  • Don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re still grieving longer than you think you “need” to. How you grieve, and how long it takes to get through it, is different for each person – and if you suffer more than one loss, you might grieve differently for each one.

  • Create a routine. It can be resuming an old routine or creating a new one. Either way, having a routine can help relieve some of the grief by providing structure and expectations on a day-to-day basis.

  • Try to avoid drastic or major life changes for several months after the tragedy.

  • Eat right and get plenty of exercise. These healthy activities are beneficial even when not grieving, but they can be especially helpful when coping with emotional pain.

  • Find someone to talk to about the loss. Not everyone will benefit from talking to others, but most people will.

  • Engage in activities that allow you to express yourself. Having a hobby can provide an emotional outlet for your grief and a way for you to express what you’re feeling in unconventional ways.

The Symptoms of Grief

As odd as it may sound, sometimes a person isn’t sure they are grieving. They might go about life as normal, wondering why they don’t feel more sadness or pain. Though crying, emotional pain and fatigue are often seen as the hallmarks of grief, some might suffer the loss in entirely different ways.

Here is how grief might present itself after a loss. Remember that grief often has three layers: physical, emotional and social.

Physical symptoms include:

  • Crying
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Insomnia
  • Body aches
  • Digestive issues
  • Headaches
  • Physical sensations similar to those of a panic attack
  • Drastic change in appetite, usually a loss in appetite

Emotional symptoms might include:

  • Shock
  • Annoyance
  • Nightmares
  • Trouble focusing or concentrating
  • Anger
  • Feelings of anxiety
  • Emotional numbness
  • Extreme sadness
  • Worry
  • Frustration
  • Confusion
  • Guilt
  • Longing
  • Reactive depression

Social symptoms can include:

  • Unusual and excessive desire to be alone
  • Drastic reduction in social interactions
  • Refusal to talk to others
  • Unusual instances of “acting out” or engaging in high risk behavior

Individually, these symptoms do not signify a person is grieving. Several of these symptoms occurring after a tragic event, however, is a strong sign of active grief. Remember that just as there are many ways to grieve, there are also many individual timelines for grieving. For some the worst part of the process is over in a few months; for others, it might take many years.

Keep in mind that these emotions and physical responses are entirely normal in the aftermath of a loss. Social changes might be normal as well; however, some of those changes can indicate outside help is needed, especially if you are dealing with severe depression, issues with acting out or risky behavior, drug or alcohol abuse, or any other changes that might be harmful.

Know When & Where to Seek Help

It can be tough to know when professional help is necessary. Some might feel that simply talking to their friends is enough, and it might be at first; but at some point, the grief might become too strong to handle in this fashion.

When to Seek Help

Difficulty with Normal Tasks If grief is inhibiting your ability to live your life fully, that’s the first big sign that help might be needed. This can include problems with simple things, like getting dressed and eating, as well as more complex tasks, such as completing school work, going to work and maintaining relationships.
Grief Lingers Another signal to call for help is grief that stretches on and on, for a prolonged period. While everyone has their own timetable to overcome a loss and move on from it, there comes a point where bereavement is a centerpiece of your life, and it continues despite any steps you might take to alleviate the pain.
Damaging Behaviors A final major flag for intervention is when someone becomes a risk to themselves or others. Some will turn to self-destructive behavior; for a handful, that might even mean that suicide becomes a risk. If your friends have had to prevent you from putting yourself or others in danger, such as taking the keys when you want to drive drunk or stepping in when you decide to try drugs, it’s time to get professional help.

Where to Get Help

Reaching out to Someone Close When reaching out for help, most people begin with their friends and family. They might turn to a significant other, a close roommate, a classmate, professor or anyone else who is privy to the situation and is willing to talk and help them through it. But sometimes these close, personal confidants don’t have the tools to help on a deeper level. That’s when it’s time to look into professional counseling services.
Professional Counseling Some formal counseling services are likely offered by the school; almost all schools offer counseling services to cover a wide range of issues, including substance abuse, homesickness, academic challenges, roommate troubles and of course, grief. Most schools will also have support groups, run by independent or student organizations, to help students dealing with loss.
Local Community You can also step out of the college resources and reach out in the local community. These options might include private counseling or therapy, or seeking out local churches that offer grief counseling or at the very least, provide spiritual guidance and support.
Online Help Finally, don’t forget about online options. Free hotlines, chatlines, message boards, and informational sites can help students find the help they need from the privacy of their dorm room or apartment. Some of these online resources are listed in this guide to make it easier for you to get started on the journey toward healing.

The Importance of Addressing & Treating Grief

What is Grief Counseling?

Grief counseling is a special subset of counseling that deals with grieving, mourning and loss. Grief counseling uses talk therapy and other psychotherapy techniques as a means of providing assistance to the bereaved. A grief counselor will actively listen to what you have to say. As a listener, the counselor may simply act as a sounding board, or might provide advice and guidance for dealing with the loss. In addition, the counselor will always be on the lookout for other psychological problems and issues that might need to be addressed.

The services provided through grief counseling depend on the individual. Grief counseling might help you work your way through the tragedy and reach the point of acceptance. The counselor might provide comfort and ease the emotional pain. The help might also take the form of more intense therapy that comes into play when the grieving process is prolonged or is starting to interfere with day-to-day life.

The services of a grief counselor are available in a surprising number of places. Private practice will be a major place to seek the services of a counselor, but churches, funeral homes and other institutions that regularly counsel those dealing with tragedy may be able to offer the services of a good counselor. Most importantly, the college or university almost always has counseling services available to any student who needs them.

Grief Counseling Help & Information

  • Grief Healing

    As an online informational and support resource, Grief Healing is notable for its blog and discussion group.

  • GriefNet.org

    Provides a large variety of online support groups that operate 24/7/365 that anyone can join. The groups are available for adults or children.

  • HealGrief.org

    A non-profit organization that provides numerous online-based methods and services to get through the grieving process.

  • Living With Heart

    This one is unique in that it provides support to those dealing with any life-changing and significant adversity.

  • Open to Hope

    An online community that provides hope to those suffering from loss. Grievers can find a forum to share stories and hope and inspiration to others.

  • Friends for Survival

    An outreach organization that offers educational, informational and helpline resources for those who lost a friend to suicide.

  • Hospice Foundation of America

    Specializes in all issues relating to hospice care, especially principled approaches to improve the level of hospice care provided by medical care providers. A notable portion of the website is devoted to helping individuals deal with grief.

  • MHA

    Mental Health America is a community-based national organization with the mission of advancing the mental health of people in the United States. MHA address all potential causes of mental illness, including grief and bereavement.

  • Association for Death Education and Counseling

    A professional organization that deals with all things relating to death, including bereavement and grief. The ADEC is a member organization that offers various resources, including how to find a grief specialist.

  • SAMHSA

    The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. It focuses on improving the overall mental health of the United States and reducing substance abuse.

  • Womenshealth.gov

    The US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health has a very informative portion of its website devoted to loss and grieving, as well as links to other resources.

  • Actively Moving Forward

    A nonprofit organization that helps young adults, such as college students, who are coping with the death of a loved one. The AMF establishes local chapters on college campus to support grieving students.

  • Children’s Bereavement Center

    This center is tailored to grief support for children, caregivers and young adults.

  • GriefShare

    A network of grief support groups located all over the world. These groups meet weekly to help grieving individuals move on to recovery.

  • National Alliance for Grieving Children

    A national network of volunteers and grief professionals whose aim is to spread knowledge and insight to children, teens and their families.

  • T.A.P.S.

    The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors specializes in comforting those who have lost a loved one in the armed forces.

  • AARP: Grief & Loss

    A portion of the AARP website devoted to detailed and comprehensive grief information to help anyone cope with a tragedy.

  • Helpguide.org: Coping with Grief and Loss

    Provides a multitude of mental and emotional health information and support, including how to cope with a tragic loss.

  • Webhealing

    Provides a comprehensive array of grief resources, including articles, forums and videos.

  • What’s Your Grief?

    An online resource that offers creative and practical ways people suffering from tragedy can express their grief.

Topics in Grief

Death of a Parent

The loss of a parent is one of the more common tragedies a college student might face, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Even though you might be a legal adult, you probably still have moments when you look to mom and dad for comfort and support. The child-parent relationship is often the strongest and longest-lasting relationship the typical college student has ever experienced. These tips might help you though the loss.

  • Your primary emotional reaction could be delayed or less intense than you might have expected. This doesn’t mean you didn’t love your parent or aren’t affected by their death. You will have a lot going on while in college, and it shouldn’t be surprising if it takes a while for the full brunt of the tragedy to hit.

  • Get plenty of rest, eat well, exercise and do anything else to stay in the best physical and emotional shape possible. When you’re grieving, it’s very easy to get sick and let your health decline.

  • Your grief may last a while. In fact, it may last a very long time or you may never fully recover from it. Understand that this can be normal and expected.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Losing a parent is traumatic and there’s no shame in needing assistance to cope with your tragedy.

  • Though you might logically understand that as your parent’s child, are expected to outlive your parents, it won’t make the death any easier to handle.

Resources:

Family Lives On Foundation

Works to help children cope with the loss of a parent. Emotional support and remembrance initiatives are provided to help maintain a child’s overall well-being.

Losing Your Parents

A grief-based website devoted to those who have lost parents. Resources include a blog and podcast.

The Center for Grieving Children

Although physically based in Philadelphia, the Center’s website offers an excellent grief resources page with comprehensive tips and advice for grieving children.

Death of a Family Member or Close Friend

The loss of a sibling, close friend, spouse or other close family member can be incredibly tough, especially if the death was sudden or unexpected. Losing a sibling or spouse can be devastating, especially since you have lost not only a family member, but a close friend as well. That double-whammy can have repercussions that echo through your life for a very long time. Keep these points in mind when dealing with it all.

  • Reach out to those who can help you. You may have a classmate or roommate who will be glad to listen and comfort you. Don’t forget your professors – even the most aloof instructor will give you help if you ask them for it.

  • Take advantage of your school’s counseling services. Even if you decide counseling isn’t right for you, they will be able to suggest other forms of coping with your loss.

  • Depending on your academic goals and mindset, immersing yourself in school might help. Be careful not to use academics as a means of hiding from your tragedy, but it might work as a short-term way of coping.

Resources:

Losing a Spouse

An online resource for discussing the grieving process for those who have lost their husband or wife.

Helping Yourself Heal When an Adult Sibling Dies

A nice piece of comfort and advice for those who have lost a sibling.

The Sibling Connection

A resource for those grieving the loss of a sibling, the website has a section devoted to college students and grief.

Death of a Fellow Student

The death of a fellow student can be one of the more shocking college experiences. College students are typically in the prime of their physical lives, so the death of a classmate is often completely unexpected. This sudden loss can be exceptionally jarring and confusing, even if you weren’t close to the student who died. These tips might help you through it:

  • Talk with other students about the tragedy. Talking about your feelings may sound cliché, but it really can help.

  • Get involved in activities with classmates, especially if it involves honoring the student who died. This is a great way to maintain your physical and emotional health while grieving.

  • Keep up with your routines. Continue going to class, participating in extracurricular activities, working or anything else you were doing before the death.

  • Take advantage of any programs or services your school offers in the aftermath. Even if being with others when you’re upset doesn’t appeal to you, don’t automatically reject the opportunity to interact with others who are grieving.

Resources:

American School Counselor Association – Crisis Book

A thorough and detailed handbook for dealing with the death of someone within a school community.

National Association of School Psychologists – Addressing Grief

Explains steps to take and avoid when coping with the loss of a classmate.

Death of a Loved One from Suicide

Suicide grief can be exceptionally challenging. The fact that you’ve lost someone because of suicide may be particularly difficult to reconcile. In addition to the shock and sadness, there can also be thoughts of guilt, confusion and shame. To deal with this, it’s important to know how to cope in the aftermath of suicide.

  • Connect with survivors when you’re ready. For some survivors, a support group may be helpful by enabling them to talk about their feelings and the loved one they lost. Others may prefer to meet with survivors one-on-one via a survivor outreach or similar community program. This can be done in person, by phone or video call, or even via text or email.

  • Don’t shy away from talking about what happened. Talking about suicide in the right way doesn’t promote suicide, but rather brings awareness to the problem and can help prevent it in the future. Letting others know what happened also gives others the opportunity to support you in the right way. Conversely, if you’re just not ready to talk about it with people outside of your immediate circle, it’s ok.

  • Understand sadness may hit you out of the blue. You may think you’re “doing ok,” when a song, video, photo or special day comes along that brings you back to your shattering grief. It’s ok to feel your sadness, but if you need to remove yourself from the reminder, that’s ok, too.

  • Know that it’s not your fault.Acknowledge any feelings of guilt that you have, but steer clear of blaming yourself. You are not responsible and did not cause the suicide. Your guilt may be a symptom of the anger you’re afraid to feel towards your loved one. Seek help from a professional for these conflicting and confusing emotions in the aftermath of suicide.

Resources:

American Association of Suicidology

A charitable organization dedicated to suicide prevention. Initiatives, training, conferences and resources are available to those interested in learning more.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – Find Support

A leading suicide prevention organization that offers a plethora of resources, including support to those who are grieving the loss of a loved one due to suicide.

Suicide.org

A non-profit website with the goal of preventing suicides and bringing awareness to the tragedy.

Grieving the End of an Intimate Relationship

College life often includes romantic relationships. Relationships are often more serious than they were in high school, and the emotions are stronger. A breakup can be extremely painful and traumatic, but unfortunately, breakups are relatively common while in college. This is a double-edged sword: On one hand, friends and family will be available to provide support. On the other hand, some people might be dismissive or casual about the grief that follows the end of an intimate relationship.

One thing is almost always true: an individual will never be surrounded by a higher concentration of peers and potential romantic partners than when they’re in college. Friends in college are going through the same issues with breakups, so the built-in support system is huge. And of course, there is the prospect of moving on more quickly if another suitor might be waiting in the wings, so don’t discount the possibilities.

Grieving the Death of a Pet

Pets often become cherished members of the family. When a beloved pet passes away while you’re away at college, the loss can be especially hard. Depending upon your situation and where you attend school, it may have been weeks, months or even years since you saw the pet. Being so far away also means that there was no chance to say a final goodbye.

Coping with this grief can be especially difficult because many people believe a pet is just a companion animal – they might expect you to ‘get over it’ or just ‘get another one.’ That’s why it’s important to reach out to those who understand and take steps to cope that will memorialize your pet in some way. Online memorial sites might help as well as online support groups. Making arrangements to visit your pet’s final resting place can also help. Making a quick trip home to visit a grave or hold a small memorial service can go a long way toward healing.

How to Help a Friend Struggling with Grief

The bereavement process is a sensitive time, and you may want to help but not know how to do so. In fact, you may choose to do or say nothing out of fear of doing the wrong thing. These tips and resources will help provide a starting point for helping a classmate.

  • Don’t say “I know how you feel.”Even if you suffered the same type of loss, your reaction and your specific feelings are going to be different than the person you’re trying to console.

  • Lend your ear and acknowledge what your friend is telling you. Accept what they say and reassure them that it’s okay for them to react to what happened.

  • Help in a tangible way.Depending on how your friend is grieving, there’s a good chance certain things will go unattended, like laundry, going to class and even something as fundamental as eating. Jump in to take care of some tasks, such as cooking, grocery shopping, helping your friend catch up on missed lectures or taking class notes for them.

  • Don’t say “It was God’s will.” Your friend may not be religious – and even if they are religious, they could be questioning their faith. Besides that, the last thing they want to hear is that the loss was intended and purposeful.

  • Say Something.It’s understandable that you want to avoid saying the wrong thing, but fully acknowledging what happened and that you understand its gravity can be helpful and avoid an uncomfortable situation.

  • Silence is okay. Sitting quietly can feel awkward and uncomfortable, but if your friend doesn’t want to talk, trying to force a conversation can make things worse.

  • Remember that external demeanor might mask pain. Outward appearances can be superficial, and the grieving context is no different. Don’t assume that just because your friend looks and sounds fine, they are “over” the loss.

  • Don’t say “They’re in a better place.” Your friend may not believe this, but even if they do, it still won’t ease the pain of the loss. It might also be taken to mean that their emotional pain is necessary.

  • Check in. A simple phone call or quick visit is a nice gesture to show you’re thinking about them. It can also be a good way to make sure your friend is doing okay and hasn’t done anything they might regret.

  • Don’t offer advice. Everyone grieves in their own way, so even your best advice might not work at all for them. Instead, just tell them you are there for them, and let them talk to you.

  • It can be a holiday, date, movie, song, phrase or anything else that will trigger a flashback or remind your friend of their loss. Be mindful of these and try to avoid introducing them or discussing them unless your grieving friend mentions them first.

Resources:

Our House

Although the primary purpose is to provide grief support services within the community, its website has an extensive set of grief support resource pages.

The Unabridged Student Counseling Virtual Pamphlet Collection

This site provides a large collection of online informational pamphlets offered by colleges and universities. A wide range of topics are covered, including traumatic events and grief.

Expert Interview

expert

Lynn R. Zakeri is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker based in Illinois. She has worked with children, adolescents, adults and families on a wide variety of issues, including learning how to cope with loss and grief.

Q

What reactions to grief are natural and expected, and what reactions might mean professional help is in order?

ASadness is normal. Disrupted sleep, feeling out of sorts, disconnected, all of these are natural and expected. When it starts impacting your day-to-day functioning for days in a row, seeking professional help for guidance and more support is a good idea. When the waves of grief are so overwhelming that they really don’t pass, when you can’t function as a student, when you can’t concentrate on your work, when you are spending more time alone then with others, then you need support.

Q

How can students get on with their lives while still acknowledging and accepting those waves of grief and loss?

AWaves are normal. The five stages of grief are very helpful to understand, but also remember that these stages are not always followed in order and there is no “right” protocol for grieving. Communicate with your teachers. If you are having a particularly hard time on a certain day, figure out alternative ways to still complete your student responsibilities while taking care of your own mental health. Cry when you want to cry, but then find healthy distractions to get you through your days (exercise, friends, walks, etc).

Q

What can friends do to help someone struggling with grief?

AEmpathy is always appreciated. Listening. When a grieving friend is ready to talk, sometimes talking about memories can be healing. Suggest walks, movies, etc to help distract your friend when he/she wants distractions.

Q

Anything other advice on how college students can cope?

AGrief may become just as raw and new when you return home for breaks. If you want to see a therapist, ask for one. Find one online. There are always people who will talk with you and help you figure out ways to find yourself again and understand the process.