How to Navigate Grief and Loss as a College Student

Grief is a natural part of life, but it can be difficult to navigate. For college students, it can impact performance and motivation while in school. This guide outlines the various stages of grief and provides support and resources for students to navigate academics and social life during these difficult times.

Written By

Timon Kaple

- Bio

Timon Kaple, Ph.D., is a full-time writer and researcher. His work focuses on sociolinguistics, small-group folklore, the anthropology of sound, higher education, and student support services. He has experience as an ethnographer and enjoys conducting fieldwork and archival research.

Expert Contributor

Rebecca Newman

- Bio

Rebecca (MSW, LCS) is a psychotherapist and writer in Philadelphia, specializing in working with and content about eating disorders, anxiety, depression, infertility, substance abuse, grief and loss, gender and sexuality, trauma, and adjustment to life changes. She earned a BA in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania, where she received the John Hope Franklin Award for Combating American Racism.

last updated

04/01/2022

Grief, loss, and traumatic events are a natural part of life. You can be thrown a curveball at any moment, which can make the cause of grief feel even more heavy as you learn to navigate life in a new reality. Studies show that 22-30% of undergraduate students are grieving at any given time and there are many ways a person can experience grief. Since we each handle difficult situations differently, we can never predict exactly what the grieving process will look like for us.

Grief can be especially challenging for college students. In the wake of a significant loss or traumatic event, a student’s academic performance and general motivation may plummet. These effects are natural and understandable. Fortunately, there are resources to help make the grief process easier for college students. This guide explores grief from a college student’s perspective, discusses self-care options, offers expert advice, and shares helpful resources for anyone experiencing grief in college or trying to support a grieving friend or family member.

Defining Grief Beyond Loss

Many people only think about grief as being a reaction to the death of a friend or family member. While the loss of a loved one is certainly one cause of grief, grief can come from a wide range of sources. According to Dr. Caitlin Stanaway, a licensed psychologist at the University of Washington, grief “can occur anytime reality is not what we wanted, hoped for, or expected.” Looking at common events or triggers for grief provides a helpful starting point for understanding it. Further, reviewing the five stages of grief gives grief a framework that can help in managing it.

What are some of the main ways that students might experience grief?

Loss of a Loved One

Whether it’s a friend, family member, or pet, losing a loved one is one of the primary causes of grief among college students. For students away at school, the grief of losing a loved one is amplified because of their physical distance from them, lack of time they’ve spent together in recent memory, or lack of in-person connection with other friends and family members who are also grieving.

A Medical Diagnosis

A serious medical diagnosis for a friend, family member, or even ourselves can cause major disruption, sometimes for long periods, and lead us to feelings of grief. Despite improvements in modern medical treatment, medical diagnoses of life-threatening or debilitating illnesses are among some of the most jarring events encountered by college students.

A Traumatic Event

Traumatic events can be especially difficult because they are often unpredictable. Feelings of grief from traumatic events are often amplified because they are usually unexpected. Coupled with any negative physical or mental damage they may cause, traumatic events can be life-changing and difficult to manage. Add to that the busyness of being a student, and traumatic events become difficult to tackle.

The End of a Relationship

Whether romantic or friendly, the loss of a relationship can be devastating. We can experience grief in these times of loss because of how embedded our lives became with those of others. We can experience grief as we learn to live our lives separately from those we were once so intertwined. Often, these relationships, and thus the grief process that comes when they end, are endowed with significance in very particular and personal ways.

The 5 Stages of Grief

Breaking grief down into a 5-step process helps us better understand it. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross defined this widely-used process in 1969 and labeled the steps as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Dr. Stanaway describes these five stages as “our attempts to process change and protect ourselves while we adapt to a new reality.”

The key to utilizing this process is realizing that grieving looks differently for each person, and it sometimes doesn’t fit neatly into stages. The 5-step process still gives us a solid framework and starting point to think about how many of us experience grief and what progress toward a healthier state, or acceptance, might entail.

  1. Denial

In this first stage of grief, denying or refusing to admit that anything traumatic or significant has happened is common. You may carry on with your normal routines since keeping busy can serve as a distraction from the reality of your loss or difficult experience.

Alternatively, you might procrastinate, engage in mindless activities, or isolate yourself from others to avoid reckoning with the truth of your situation. On the inside, you might feel confused, numb, or in shock. Friends who wish to help and support you might even make you feel worse since you have yet to come to terms with your loss.

  1. Anger

Following a period of denial, you may experience feelings of anger and frustration. During this second stage of grief, you might ask yourself questions like “Why me?” or “What have I done to deserve this?” You might be angered by thoughts of being treated unfairly or because the trajectory of your life changed without your consent. This is often the case when we lose a loved one we were close to and with whom we had plans.

Anger can manifest in many ways, including cynicism, irritability, aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior, and even sarcasm. You may also have feelings of resentment, embarrassment, and rage. It’s also common for some people to feel out of control and not like their normal selves.

  1. Bargaining

During the bargaining stage, you might feel all-consumed by “what if” questions. You might ruminate on things you cannot change and wonder what life would be like if you could go back in time to change the course of events. Religious people may attempt to make deals with their higher power in hopes of a miracle to rectify a situation, bring a loved one back, or influence an outcome that’s beyond their control.

According to Dr. Stanaway, the bargaining stage often involves over-thinking, assuming the worst, comparing yourself to others, passing judgment on yourself or others, and trying to predict the future. You may also experience feelings of anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, and insecurity.

  1. Depression

After experiencing a great loss or traumatic event, it’s common and natural to go through a period of depression. The depression stage feels so heavy because, at this point, we begin feeling the gravity of our loss or unsettling experience. While deep depression may feel never-ending or present you or those around you with a sense that you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental illness, remember that this is a difficult yet normal process that will eventually pass.

Like all the stages of grief, depression can look drastically different from one individual to another. It may take months or years for some to move on and feel a significant sense of progress toward normalcy. Common symptoms of the depression stage include crying, reduced energy, hopelessness, changes in sleep schedule or appetite, and increased drug or alcohol use.

  1. Acceptance

Acceptance means you reach a point where you can accept your new reality in the wake of your major loss or traumatic event. This does not mean that you’re “okay” or “all right” with what has happened, nor does this indicate that you’re not still grieving in some way. Rather, acceptance means we learn to live with what has happened and, with the help of self-care techniques and those around us, deal with grief more effectively. It is common, however, to still be triggered by reminders and to experience symptoms of the previous four stages of grief from time to time even after acceptance has happened.

With acceptance, you might feel like you’ve regained the ability to be present in the moment, communicate honestly and assertively, and practice more mindful behaviors. You may also experience feelings of validation, pride, wisdom, and courage.

Self Care & Support

We must all be our own health advocates by developing healthy habits and surrounding ourselves with supportive people. Each individual should also stay aware of the type of support they may need and consider the types of services a potential school offers in terms of extra mental or physical support. Studies show that students with good support systems are much more likely to regain academic stability and performance during times of grief or crisis than those who go it entirely alone. Successfully bouncing back after a traumatic event or loss while in college involves staying healthy as well as knowing what resources are available should you need them.

Take Care of Yourself

Taking care of yourself in a meaningful way goes beyond treating yourself to some simple pleasures now and again. This aspect of self-care can be quite challenging, especially for college students. Taking care of yourself involves getting 6-8 hours of sleep a night, engaging in regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, and avoiding drugs and alcohol.

After a loss or tragic event, it is especially crucial to take care of yourself. Remember that everyone grieves differently and has unique needs for coping. If you’re not putting yourself or others in danger, feel free to explore any activity that is healthy and may help you feel better. This includes lifting weight, watching movies, cooking, seeing friends, going shopping, and doing just about anything that might lift your spirits in some way.

Get Help if You Need It

Going through a traumatic event or significant loss with the right support is one of the surest ways to bounce back and cope successfully. Thankfully, most colleges and universities have some sort of counseling office or mental health professionals to help you whenever you need it.

You might also have access to grief support groups in your community or decide to see a grief counselor off campus. If you’re involved with a religious organization, you may want to check into its local resources. If you aren’t sure where to get the support you need, ask your friends, professors, residence hall directors, or any trusted advisors what they recommend. If you aren’t sure how to find the right therapist for you, this guide may help.

Express Your Grief in Healthy Ways

Finding personal ways to grieve is helpful for many students. If talking it through with a counselor or friend does not seem like the right step for you, consider other outlets. Healthy ways for you to express your grief include writing in a journal, drawing, composing music, and writing poetry, short stories, or letters. For some, more physical activities like running, boxing, or taking a long walk helps them express their grief. Again, if you’re not putting yourself or others in harm’s way, there are a lot of healthy ways you can help yourself process your grief.

Be Patient With Yourself

Grief is a process, so it’s important to be patient and go easy on yourself. One of the best ways to do this is to give yourself time and space to feel your way through grief as opposed to rushing the process.

There’s no fix-all solution that will erase your grief immediately. In fact, the five steps of grief show that it’s common for people to deal with grief for months, years, or even the rest of their lives. Over time, we can learn to handle grief more efficiently. As we do so, we’ll slowly but surely reap the benefits of good self-care practices and coping techniques that we learn along the way.

Carve Out Time for Fun

It’s also important to find time to see friends and loved ones. Though following through with plans when you’re feeling the weight of significant loss or trauma is more difficult, living alongside your grief and carrying on with as many normal activities as possible can actually aid in the healing process.

Of course, as a college student, you’ll spend much of your time and energy keeping your school assignments and responsibilities in order. It’s still helpful to carve out time for fun by spending time with friends on and around campus. This is a time in your life when many of your friends have flexible schedules, so seize even the little moments by enjoying the things that make you feel good.

Talk About It

Some people find talking about grief difficult. They don’t want to be judged or perceived as weak or not mature enough to handle a tough situation. Remember, though, that the grieving process is natural and often brings up unpredictable emotions and feelings. It’s healthy to talk through your feelings, and it’s okay to be vulnerable. It can even aid the healing process and make you feel better in both the short and long term.

Talking about your grief may help you process your feelings and put you on a path toward healing and acceptance, but there are additional benefits. By having a vulnerable conversation with someone, you’re giving them a window into how you’re feeling. This allows them to better support you, be a better friend or family member, and help them understand how you’re coping with your grief.

How to Support Someone Experiencing Grief

There are many ways to support someone experiencing grief, soft skills and actions that help you become an effective and impactful ally. While some of these suggestions might seem obvious, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and the emotions and to lose sight of how to best support your friend or family member. Remember that any negative reaction to your efforts is likely a symptom of their grief, so don’t take what they say or do personally if you feel your efforts are rejected. Let’s take a closer look at some of the best ways to help someone during the grieving process.

  • Check in on them: There are a lot of ways – text messages, phone calls, emails, etc. – to keep tabs on our friends these days. It doesn’t take much of your time to reach out and check in on how a friend is doing. Experts suggest, though, that instead of just relying on modern technology, simply showing up with a plan or concrete suggestion, like offering to take notes, do their laundry, or bring food, is one of the best ways to offer support. These actions can do a lot more for someone who is grieving than a simple “I’m here for you if you need anything” text.
  • Be available: Let your grieving friend know that you will make time to see them. Be clear and tell them that you’ll create a safe space for them to be vulnerable and talk about whatever they are feeling about their grief. By offering them your time and letting them know that you’re available for them, they’ll likely feel a level of comfort even if they don’t take you up on the offer. Consider also being available to mutual friends who might want to help or need more information on how to be supportive of your grieving friend, too.
  • Be a good listener: Unless you’re a qualified grief counselor or mental health professional with appropriate experience, it’s not your job to try to fix anything for your grieving friend or family member. Even experienced professionals who know how to help others in this situation know that grief is not something we can alleviate with a simple solution. The best approach is to be a good listener, do your best to understand them, offer no judgment, and hear them out. Just make eye contact, resist distractions, and let the person know you’re paying attention.
  • Be patient: Since grief and the experience of loss is personal, it’s impossible for us to put ourselves in a hurting person’s shoes. We can’t fully understand the weight of their experience, so it’s important to remain patient and try to engage with them on their own terms. While being a good listener and showing up to offer help with school-related work or chores is helpful, you’ll be additionally supportive if you remain calm, collected, and patient with them.
  • Give encouragement: When it feels like the time is right, encourage your friend or loved one to seek a fun activity. If you think they might be up for something small, like a board game or a movie, offer to visit them for that purpose alone. You can also make concrete suggestions for getting them out of the house, such as taking them to dinner, visiting with friends, or attending a concert. Whatever the activity, it’s important to remind them to prioritize themselves during such a difficult time.
  • Encourage them to get professional support: As a supportive friend or family member, know your limitations and boundaries. In doing so, you can be prepared to make suggestions for how and where your grieving friend can get professional help. You can even help them locate counseling services on campus or in the nearby community. If you’re unsure whether your friend needs professional help, our expert offers some suggestions along with providing the symptoms of prolonged grief disorder below.

An Expert Weighs In

Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and writer specializing in eating disorders, anxiety, depression, infertility, substance abuse, grief and loss, gender and sexuality, trauma, and adjustment to life changes. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania where she received the John Hope Franklin Award for Combating American Racism. Rebecca works as a clinical supervisor and psychotherapist for an academic hospital system in Philadelphia.

Q: What is your professional history in working with patients/clients who are experiencing grief?

A: I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who provides individual therapy in an academic psychiatry practice. I work with students from many of my institution’s different colleges on a range of challenges that affect them over the course of their studies, including depression, anxiety, relationships, and grief and loss. Unexpectedly losing a loved one is often untimely, especially while pursuing a degree, and I have seen students maintain their studies while enduring a loss and the pursuant grief, particularly when they mobilize appropriate support.

Q: What are 2-3 ways that a friend or family member can support someone who is experiencing grief? How should they approach the situation? Any tips based on your experience?

A: The most important thing to remember as someone offering support to a bereaved person is Ring Theory, where the affected person sits in the middle of a series of concentric “rings,” or tiers of support. The only rule is “support in, dump out.” This means that you offer support to anyone who is closer to the center of the rings, and the people on outlying tiers offer support to you, and they are the people on whom you can “dump” (used more hyperbolically than literally) your stress after offering support inwards.

Offering support inwards may vary depending on the needs of the affected person, but the phrase “I’m here if you need anything” typically isn’t helpful, as people are often too consumed by their loss to make requests. The best supports just show up – bring food and stock the fridge with essentials, go over and do laundry, or offer to take notes in a shared class. Be a point person for a friend group and organize support efforts, like coordinating a schedule of who will call/reach out to the affected person each day or having a plan for group activities, walks, or middle-of-the-night phone calls.

Q: What are some signs that someone should seek professional help/counseling to deal with their grief in a healthy way? What’s the best way to locate help?

A: Grief is such an enormous emotional undertaking that its mere existence indicates a need for professional support! However, if you are having trouble keeping up with grooming, finding it difficult to concentrate or retain information, feeling disconnected from friends or other loved ones, or experiencing crushing bouts of tearfulness or crying, reach out for professional counseling. As a student, you likely have access to a school-provided counseling center that offers you support short-term and can refer you to a provider in the community for ongoing, long-term support as you adjust to the loss you experienced.

The APA has added Prolonged Grief Disorder to the most recent update of the DSM-5-TRm which is classified by:

  • Identity disruption (e.g., feeling as though part of oneself has died)
  • A marked sense of disbelief about the death
  • Avoidance of reminders that the person is dead
  • Intense emotional pain (e.g., anger, bitterness, sorrow) related to the death
  • Difficulty with reintegration (e.g., problems engaging with friends, pursuing interests, and planning for the future)
  • Emotional numbness
  • Feeling that life is meaningless
  • Intense loneliness (i.e., feeling alone or detached from others)

If you are noticing any of these symptoms, seek help right away from available counseling resources.

Q: For students who are uncomfortable talking about or addressing their grief, what should they know?

A: There is a common misconception that if we avoid a feeling or memory, its impact will shrink, and it will affect us less. While it might feel better in the moment to not address your grief, in the long term this will only make you less practiced at coping with these feelings when (not if, when) they arise in the future. The pain feels so raw and fresh and, paradoxically, leaning into it is how to help integrate it and promote your healing. The goal of working through grief is to learn how to better manage the feelings associated with the loss, not to make the grief just “go away.” This can be challenging and daunting, and since grief is such a universal experience, you will find so many others who have endured grief as well and who can offer you support.

Q: What does self-care look like for students who are grieving these days? What have you seen students benefit from?

A: Institutions are becoming more flexible with students as course requirements allow so that they can take the extra space they need to grieve, so it’s important to include those academic resources as you build your support network! Self-care practices can vary, although things that seem to have been most helpful include identifying a robust support network to help with concrete tasks, identifying significant others with whom you share the loss, and also some with whom you don’t, and utilizing services that can help, like mindfulness apps or, if in your budget, meal delivery services. Make plans and space them out, including for the time after the first couple of weeks when you will likely receive a flurry of support.

Q: Based on your experience, what are some other points that you feel need to be covered?

A: You will learn quickly who are the people who say they want to offer you support but have limited follow-through. Sadly, talk can be cheap, and during this time, you will come to learn which people in your orbit will just show up and understand some of the complexities of grief. These people may have been affected by similar grief themselves and can offer empathetic support that is informed by what was helpful for them while still knowing to tailor their support to be most helpful to you.