How to Deal With Grief in College
Everybody experiences a loss at some point — sometimes while in college. Learn how to deal with grief as a student and what resources are available.
- Grief and loss can affect your emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.
- When dealing with grief and loss, honor your feelings, ask for support, and practice self-care.
- To help someone who is grieving, be a good listener and allow space for silence or tears.
A universal response to death and loss, grief can affect your emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. It's normal and natural to experience an array of emotions following the death of a loved one or a pet, or following a significant life change such as a divorce or breakup.
Grief can be especially hard to deal with while in college. A 2021 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that 1 in 3 college students ages 18-23 had lost at least one loved one in the past year. What's more, half of college students in this age range had lost someone in the past two years.
There is no one right way to grieve, but it's important to provide space and validation for one's feelings, as this is part of the healing process.
What Are the Different Types of Grief?
Not all grief experiences are the same. In fact, there are many ways to grieve a loss and many types of grief depending on the circumstances surrounding the loss.
Normal grief typically includes feelings of sadness, shock, and loneliness. Grief is a process — not a state — and the intensity or duration of the experience can vary depending on the person and type of loss.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, describes bereavement as lasting about six months. Some symptoms, however, may take longer to resolve. Prolonged grief disorder is grief that lasts one or more years. This occurs in about 4% of people, according to the DSM.
Complicated grief is a reaction to a death, loss, or trauma that significantly deviates from the length of intensity of a normal grief response.
Often, this looks like an immediate, devastating response to the loss that impairs one or more areas of functioning. Complicated grief also does not improve over time.
According to the DSM, unrelenting grief that exceeds six months is considered "complicated." Complicated grief tends to occur when the loss or death is sudden, unexpected, or traumatic. People with a history of mental health conditions might be more susceptible to this form of grief.
One Yale study found that about 15% of people who've lost a loved one might experience complicated grief.
Anticipatory grief can look similar to normal grief, with feelings like anger, anxiety, and depression. This form of grief, however, occurs when there is an anticipated loss or death. As such, the person often begins to grieve before the actual loss or death.
An example of anticipatory grief is grief felt for a chronically and terminally ill loved one before their death. Expecting a loss can cause feelings of helplessness, but it can also allow for opportunities to use the time in a more meaningful way to cope with the anticipated loss.
Disenfranchised grief is when others do not acknowledge the significance of a loss or one's grief response. For example, grieving in response to the loss of a beloved pet might not be validated by others who fail to understand the importance of your relationship with the animal.
This form of grief can complicate, frustrate, and thwart one's ability to heal from the loss.
Delayed grief is a form of complicated grief that occurs when the emotional response to a loss is suspended or delayed.
For example, someone consumed by the responsibility to make arrangements for a deceased loved one may not feel they have the time or space to grieve until after these things have been taken care of.
Delayed grief symptoms are similar to normal grief and can occur weeks or even years after the loss.
According to the Encyclopedia of Stress, traumatic grief is a relatively new term that combines the symptoms of grief or bereavement with symptoms of a trauma response.
Oftentimes, the loss that's experienced is traumatic in some way. Trauma symptoms can include intrusive and distressing thoughts, preoccupation with the loss, feelings of hopelessness, and impaired functioning.
Absent grief, sometimes called masked grief, is a form of complicated grief in which the person doesn't express any (or very few) signs of grief. This type of grief is often considered an avoidant or denial reaction to experiencing loss.
Absent grief might also manifest as physical symptoms, such as fatigue, headaches, problems sleeping, irritability, or anxiety.
What Are the 5 Stages of Grief and Loss?
One of the most commonly cited models used to understand grief and loss is the Kübler-Ross model, also called the DABDA model. This model was originally developed to understand the emotional experience of people in the process of dying, such as from a terminal illness.
The model highlights five responses to loss, which are now often called the stages of grief.
Note that these reactions and feelings don't necessarily take place in the following order. They can occur at any time or even together in the process of coping with grief.
1. Denial: The first stage of grief is denial. This usually means being unable to accept the reality of the loss or death. People in this stage may isolate themselves or avoid people and things associated with the loss.
2. Anger: Anger and frustration in response to a loss are common and can manifest as thoughts such as, "Why did this have to happen?" You might feel angry toward others, with yourself, with the person who has died, or with a higher power.
3. Bargaining: Bargaining typically involves an attempt to avoid the reality of the loss by negotiating. This might look like someone asking God or a higher power to give their life in exchange for the life of the one who has died.
4. Depression: This stage accompanies feelings of sadness, despair, and even hopelessness. Common types of thoughts might be, "I'm so sad — what's the point of living?" Social withdrawal is also common during this stage. Giving a grieving person support and space to process their feelings is key.
5. Acceptance: In this stage, the person has accepted the reality of the loss and is coping with their grief in effective ways. For someone who is anticipating their own death, a state of acceptance might look like trying to enjoy and find meaning in the time they have left.
How to Cope With Grief: 5 Mental Health Strategies for Students
Grief is a process, and learning to cope with a loss is an important part of healing. Although each person's experience of loss is different, there are some common strategies for coping that college students can use to try and find relief.
1. Talk About It
You might be feeling urges to withdraw or isolate yourself from your classmates, friends, and family in response to grief, but talking about how you feel might be more helpful. Finding trusted friends, family members, or even a counselor who can validate your experience is essential.
Journaling your thoughts and feelings is another way to validate your experience of grief.
2. Ask for Help
Grief can feel emotionally and physically stifling, so it's critical you ask for help if you're struggling.
Asking a close friend or family member for support or to do favors for you can help take things off your to-do list when it feels difficult to find motivation.
Talking to your professors, asking for extensions, and even considering a leave of absence from school might give you the space and time you need to heal while still being responsible for your academic career.
Lastly, seeking professional help — such as through campus mental health services — if you are feeling depressed, having problems functioning, or just need an empathic person to listen to you can help you process your grief.
3. Take Care of Yourself
The emotional toll of grieving can zap our motivation to do even the most routine tasks. Though you might not feel like it, remembering to do simple things to take care of yourself is a healthy way to cope with grief.
For example, keeping routines, staying hydrated, working out, and getting enough sleep are important self-care behaviors that can keep you healthy and better able to get through even the most difficult days.
4. Take Action
Sometimes it can help to memorialize the loss and identify a tangible way to process your grief. For example, you could create a picture collage, compile a memory book, or make a special place in your home for remembering your lost loved one.
5. Give Yourself Time and Space
There's no right way to grieve. Giving yourself grace, space, and time to experience the loss and understand your grief process is key to healing and moving through your grief.
Don't expect to get over your grief. Instead, learn to carry it with you as you progress through life.
How to Help Someone Deal With Grief
If someone you know is going through a loss, there are several ways you can support them.
First, be sure to respect their grief process. Avoid saying things such as, "It's been a while now — shouldn't you be over this?" or "Why are you still so sad?" Offering a comforting and nonjudgmental space to listen to their feelings is essential at this time.
To be a good listener, try offering statements such as, "I can see how much pain you're in. I'm here to listen or support you any way I can."
The person who's grieving might not want to talk about their experience at all. Alternatively, they may really need to talk through and express their feelings. Being a supportive listener means knowing when they need to sit in silence or cry with you.
You can also drop off meals or offer to take care of tasks the person may not have the energy to do. Gifts and cards are another simple way of letting them know you care and are thinking of them.
In general, staying in touch, checking in, and being present with someone who is grieving are some of the best ways to help them cope.
If you're concerned that your loved one isn't coping well with their grief or may need more support, gently suggest they consider professional help. Better yet, offer to help them find a counselor.
Resources for Dealing With Grief and Loss in College
If you or someone you know is experiencing grief, the following list of resources can help you navigate the grief process.
Frequently Asked Questions About Grief and Loss
Do colleges offer bereavement leave for students?
Whether a college offers bereavement leave for students varies depending on the school. That said, many professors and academic counselors offer flexible options for students so they can take time off to attend funerals and other services after a death.
If you need more time after experiencing a loss while in college, you might consider taking a leave of absence or advocating for ways to make up for class work you missed.
Can you experience grief without death?
Yes, you can experience grief without death. Many people experience grief in response to other losses, such as the end of a relationship (e.g., your own or your parents') and the loss of an identity following a significant life change or trauma.
Should you tell your professors about your grief?
If you feel your grief is affecting your academic performance or your ability to be fully present for classes, it's a good idea to inform your professors about what you're experiencing and start advocating for the support you need.
You might also consider seeking support from your academic advisor, disability services office, or a campus mental health counselor to determine the types of support available to you and how to ask for what you need.
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