Coping with Death and Grief
You are a college student, an individual in the latest stages of adolescence, a young adult, living each day to the fullest, taking risks, planning ahead, but not too far ahead. You are enjoying your college experience, feeling truly independent for the first time in your life, and the topic of death barely registers in your mind as a topic of concern. Why should it? You are young. You are in the prime. You think you are invincible, and these thoughts are developmentally appropriate. However, it is the immortal adolescent/young adult mind-set that makes college students fear death and ill prepared to deal with death when it does occur. Students therefore need to learn how to live with death, dying and grief.
What to Expect
- Expect that your life be different than it was before the death of your friend or loved one.
- Expect that it may take you, a friend, or family member longer to mourn than you would like.
- Expect that you will not have the same reactions as anyone else. No two people will respond to the same loss in the same way.
- Expect any number of feelings: Some might include:
- Grief: a pure, overwhelming sense of sadness.
- Anger: anger at the person for dying; anger or increased irritability in routine situations.
- Abandonment: feeling that you have been left by the person, particularly if there was no opportunity to say good-bye.
- Frustration: that you couldn’t prevent something from happening.
- Remorse and guilt: guilt related to feeling good (even momentarily) if you think you are supposed to continually feel bad.
- Anxiety/Panic: that something similar could happen to you, or to a loved one.
- Confusion: inability to answer the “big” questions about life and death.
- Embarrassment: feeling uncomfortable with your own display of grief; feeling uncomfortable with your friend’s and family’s displays of grief; feeling like you are more emotional than you should be.
- Denial: denial of either the feelings about your loss or about the loss itself.
- Numbness: a “lack of feeling” is a normal reaction to an immediate loss and should not be confused with “lack of caring”.
When to Get Help
- If you find that your feelings are persisting in ways that are uncomfortable to you.
- If disturbing images are intruding into your waking or dreaming life.
- If your use of alcohol or other drugs increased since the loss.
- If your reactions are getting in the way of doing what you need to do for school or in relationships.
- If you are concerned about how a friend is reacting.
- If you are feeling depressed and hopeless.
- Validate your own feelings. Acknowledge and accept all feelings, both positive and negative. You may not feel comfortable with these feelings, but they are normal and expected.
- Talk to others. Telling the story of the loss can help some people. Others will might not want to talk about the loss, but will find comfort and security by simply spending time with someone who “gets it”.
- Listen to others. Remember that you don’t have to always respond with words.
- Write down your thoughts. Use a journal to document the healing process.
- Accept help from others. (Doing errands, taking notes in class, etc.)
- Allow yourself to cry. Tears serve a dual purpose; they offer emotional and physical release.
- Identify any unfinished business and try to come to a resolution.
- Join a bereavement group. Support groups provide an opportunity to share grief with others who have experienced similar loss.
- Celebrate their life. Remembering the good times can help present a balanced picture of the person that was.
- Celebrate your life. There’s nothing like a loss to remind us to live every day to the fullest, to not put off your dreams until a later date that we might not get. Dedicate your goal to your friend’s memory. Do it for them as well as yourself.
Help a Friend
- Be supportive but do not attempt to give encouragement and reassurance when a student is in the depressed stage of grieving. It will not be helpful.
- Talk openly and honestly about the situation unless the student does not want to.
- Use an appropriate, caring conversational tone of voice.
- Show that you care. Listen attentively and show interest in what the grieving student has to say about his/her feelings and beliefs.
- Share your feelings and talk about any similar experience you may have had. Avoid using the phrase “I know just how you feel.”
- If symptoms of depression are very severe or persistent and the grieving student is not coping with day to day activities encourage that student to get professional help.