Grief and Loss
Losing a loved one while in college is overwhelming and can trigger intense emotional, behavioral, and cognitive reactions. Although it may be hard to imagine it now, living with grief does get easier. We don’t necessarily “get over” the loss of someone close to us, but the intense pain and sadness that we feel right after a death does eventually subside.
The passage of time, support from others, and good self-care often help us heal and move into a place of acceptance and adjustment to life without our loved one. Remember that there’s no “right” way to grieve, and that it’s important to take time for yourself to do what’s needed to help in your healing.
- Allow yourself to experience the range of your feelings—don’t ignore or stuff them.
- Take time to take care of yourself—you don’t have to “go back to normal” too soon.
- Talk about it with others.
- Tell others how you’re doing and what you need.
- Avoid alcohol, drugs, or other less effective coping mechanisms.
- Get plenty of sleep and rest.
- Don’t forget to eat and drink plenty of water.
- Try small amounts of exercise or physical activity to manage physical symptoms of stress.
- Attend a memorial or memorialize your friend/loved one in a private way.
- When you’re ready, try to get back into a normal routine.
- Write a letter to the person who died and express how you feel.
- Get support from community resources or clergy.
- Do what you think is best for you.
Again, we all experience loss differently. Many common responses to loss are listed below; however, this is not an exhaustive list. Everyone reacts to loss differently, and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve.
- Emotional Reactions
- Detachment, “surreal”
- Cognitive Reactions
- Difficulty Concentrating
- Preoccupation with death/event
- Recurring images of event
- Asking “why” and “what if” questions
- Questions/doubts about faith or spirituality
- Questions about life and death and your own mortality
- Attempts to find meaning
- Replaying your last interaction with the person who died
- Thinking things will never be normal
- Thinking you hear/see/sense the person who died
- Memories of past loss/trauma
- Wishing you could take things back or “trade” something to change things
- Fear or guilt about “moving on” or “going back to normal”
- Behavioral Reactions
- Having the need to talk about it or be with others
- Low motivation
- Crying, often at random times (or not being able to cry)
- Wishing to be alone
- Loss of interest in usual activities
- Desire to avoid the topic or feelings
- A need to remember/talk about the person who died (or the wish to avoid doing so)
Not everyone who loses a loved one seeks out counseling. It’s important to have a good support system in place and to use that support when needed. However, you may wish to talk to a professional if:
- You need someone to talk to
- You’d like additional support than what friends/family provide
- You feel like you have to “be strong” for others or suppress your grief
- Your reactions are so intense or distressing you find it difficult to function
- Your feelings or reactions to grief continue to be intense or disruptive after several months
- You have reactions from past loss or trauma
- You are experiencing significant anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts
Remember that support often involves listening and being there—you can’t take away their pain or minimize it, and attempts to do so may feel in invalidating. Here are some tips:
- It’s OK to not know what to say. Simply saying “I’m sorry,” “I’m here for you” and to acknowledge their pain is enough.
- Ask them what they need or how you can be supportive
- Offer to do specific tasks like errands or making meals (it’s OK if they decline)
- Remember the life of the deceased person, if they are in a place where they want to do that
- Don’t ask a lot of questions about how the person died, especially if it was by suicide
- Don’t offer platitudes like “they’re in a better place” or “things will get better”
- Avoid offering spiritual advice or sharing your beliefs, which may differ from theirs and make them uncomfortable during a time they need support
- Let them express whatever feelings they have: anger, sadness, tears, etc. and listen non-judgmentally
- Don’t encourage them to drink alcohol to manage their feelings or to “take their mind off things”
- Remember that their needs are more important—they may not need you as much as you want them to need you, and that’s OK
Losing someone to suicide is particularly difficult because it is usually sudden and often unexpected. It’s important to know that people who take their lives by suicide were not weak or flawed; usually people consider suicide when their level of emotional pain and sense of hopelessness is unbearable. Often there are co-occurring life stressors, substance use, or mental health issues—most often depression.
In addition to the reactions listed above, additional reactions are common when we lose someone to suicide:
- Wondering why; difficulty not knowing why/what happened
- Guilt for not knowing about their level of pain or about their suicidal thoughts, or thinking you “should have known/done something”
- Replaying your last interactions or their final days
- Feeling anger towards the person who committed suicide
- Feeling hurt or rejected
- Preoccupation with what they might have been thinking or feeling at the time of their death
- Over-estimating your contributing role or ability to affect the outcome
- A wish to find blame or a need to construct a narrative to make sense of the suicide
- Shame or stigma associated with suicide; fear that others will think differently about your friend or family member
When a pet dies, it is common to experience the same reactions to loss that we have when a person dies. This is normal, yet we often think we shouldn’t react as strongly to losing an animal. But the reality is that our pets are part of our families and part of our daily routines. They are our friends who have been there through important times in our lives, and in some cases, our entire lives.
Losing a family or personal pet is particularly hard if we weren’t there to say good-bye or if we had to make the agonizing decision about euthanasia due to illness or injury. Talk to your vet about resources available for support.
Counseling & Psychological Services
- For counseling and support
- 406 994-4531
- For physical symptoms/illness
- 406 994-2311
Dean of Students Office
- For academic support/advocacy
- 406 994-2826
Rocky Mountain Hospice 406 554-0640
Cancer Support Community 406 585-1600
Bozeman Deaconess Hospital 406 414-1644