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Dealing with Grief and Loss: Advice for Students

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Going off to college (or even living at home for college) is often considered opening the door to your future—high school is over and it’s time to move on to new experiences.

For some teens and young adults, college is also the first time they experience the death of a loved one. Dealing with grief and loss is difficult for people of all ages, but it can be incredibly tough for students—especially those who are also learning how to live with everyday college stress.

Understanding Bereavement

Whether a friend or family member has lost their battle with a chronic illness or a tragic accident occurred, a loved one’s death is an overwhelming experience. Bereavement is the period of grief and mourning after a death. It is part of the normal process of reacting to a loss and is to be expected.

Grief, or grieving, is our response to death or loss. People can experience emotional, physical, and spiritual reactions while they are grieving. Grief can certainly be caused by the death of a loved one or even a pet, but we can also grieve over the loss of a relationship—somewhat common during college, when many high school sweethearts decide to break up—or when we receive other life-altering news, such as a close friend moving away or being diagnosed with an incurable illness.

Grief is usually an unhappy or painful emotion and everyone grieves differently in their own ways. Many people have trouble concentrating or sleeping while they are grieving. Others have trouble eating or just feel “cheated,” guilty, or even relieved if someone was suffering with a painful, chronic illness.

Stages of Grief

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) explains that there are common stages of grief and mourning. These stages do not necessarily occur in one specific order and some stages can even occur at the time same:

  • Denial, disbelief; for example, trying to convince yourself that the death or loss didn’t really happen; that you received bad news in error or someone has made a mistake
  • Anger; for example, blaming yourself or others for what has happened
  • Bargaining with yourself; for example, promising to quit smoking if someone’s cancer is cured
  • Depression, sadness and crying; for example, isolating yourself from friends and family to be alone with your feelings about the situation
  • Acceptance; or coming to terms with what has really happened

The Grieving Process

The grieving process takes time. It is gradual. Some people come to terms with death or loss sooner than others, but grief can be unpredictable. A song, photograph, or special memory can trigger strong feelings of sadness. You may even feel guilty about “getting over” the situation too quickly, as if it were disrespectful, or feel guilty about arguments you had with the person you have lost.

Losing anyone who is an important part of your life during college can be traumatic, but dealing with the death of a parent during college can be incredibly debilitating. College journalism scholar Dan Reimold dealt with this delicate issue in USA Today College, quoting The Daily Kansan editor Kelly Stroda, who did a series on college and death: “College students who lose a parent are affected emotionally, psychologically, physically, academically and financially. At the very time they are about to launch independent lives, they lose the people they rely on most for direction.”

Losing a Parent During College

If you are in college when you experience the loss of a parent or other personal tragedy, you may want to:

  • Seek support from family and friends whether you are living at school or at home
  • Inform your school administration as well as your professors what has happened and determine the best route for you to take (a leave of absence or temporary withdrawal may be necessary)
  • Try your best to make healthy food choices, get exercise, and get sufficient sleep
  • Visit the campus health center and/or counseling department
  • Seek spiritual or religious help if you need it (if your campus does not offer this, consult a local church or other faith center)
  • Join a grief support group on campus or in the area (some groups are even specifically comprised of people who have lost parents at a young age or people who have lost siblings or other close relatives; you may want to consult the National Students of Ailing Mothers and Fathers Support Network)

Dealing with grief or loss caused by death or tragedy is difficult at any stage of life, but Red and Black contributor Sarah Saltzman writes that “Living with Loss” by researchers at Indiana University of Pennsylvania finds college life is geared toward academics and social activities, which leaves little room to make it through the grieving process. If something happens while you are a new college student, you may feel overwhelmed. Remember to try your best to take care of yourself and accept help from others if you need it.

Related Posts:

College Students and Depression: It’s More Common Than You Think

Suicide on Campus: Second Leading Cause of Death Among College Students

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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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Rebecca about 5 years ago Rebecca


This is a hard topic to discuss for anyone. I think this blog gave really good advice for anyone that is dealing with the loss of a loved one. Seeking support is important. From personal experience, having a good friend and/or a family member that listens to you is very helpful and comforting.