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Coping with Grief in College

Coping with Grief in College

Are you a college student with someone in your life who is ailing or deceased?  Or maybe you have a friend who is coping with grief in college and you are helping them go through this experience? Below we offer some thoughts about some things that may help.

What to expect:

First of all, you will likely feel as though you are the only person on your campus who is coping with illness or death. While few share their experiences with others, you are not alone. Research shows that 35-48% of college students have lost a family member or close friend within the last 2 years.

One student shared that “[He is] searching for others who have struggled with the same feelings; who have, like [him], felt alone in my grief.”

Another student wrote once that “[She] experienced so much emotional, mental, and physical duress from the loss of [her] mother to lung cancer.”


It is very difficult to cope with grief during the college years, because:

  • There is so much academic pressure.

  • You may be away from home for the first time.

  • You may be too far from home to travel to your loved one or family.

  • Developmentally, you are trying to gain autonomy (independence).

  • College is supposed to be the “best four years of your life.”

  • Friends and faculty may be insensitive and tell you to “move on.”

Therefore, the death of someone in your life can result in a decline in academic performance, social anxiety, sleep disturbances, and possible depression. In some cases, serious mental health issues can arise.

What you can do:

  • Share your feelings with a friend, friends, or support group members, “who understand.” It’s ok to be sad and you need to be able to talk to someone on campus that you can trust.

  • If you are a friend of someone who is grieving, listen to them when they need someone to talk to. Let them know that you are here to talk any time they need to talk, and remember that grief lasts much longer than most people who haven’t experienced grief would expect. you don’t have to “fix” anything for them, you just need to be there.

  • If you are interested in talking with a professional counselor, then try it and see what it’s like.

  • Participate in a walk or fundraiser in honor of your ill or deceased person with a couple of friends through AMF’s service group. Fundraisers help me to feel like I’m doing something positive.

  • Go home when you want to (if you can). If you feel like going home to see your family, you should. But if you want some space at school, which is normal, then stay on campus.

  • Make sure your professors know at the beginning of the semester what you are going through, no surprises.

It is important that you begin to reach out to others who are going through their own grief journeys. The AMF Support Group provides a perfect opportunity for you to support others that knew what you’re going through and the opportunity to honor your ill or deceased person.

What are Grief and Mourning?

Grief: The painful emotional, physical, mental and spiritual reactions to a loss

  • Emotional: sadness, anger, ambivalence, relief, guilt, embarrassment, shame, hurt, loneliness, fear, betrayal, etc.

  • Physical: fatigue, body aches and pains, disrupted sleeping, eating and sexual patterns, crying, dizziness, tension, etc.

  • Mental: diminished concentration and focus, inability to make decisions, sensory hallucinations, thinking you’re going “crazy”, forgetting (even simple things), disorganization, etc.

Mourning/grieving is known as the painful process of working through the reactions. It is sometimes referred to as “grief work”.

  • Grieving does not mean “getting over it” or “forgetting”: it’s about incorporating the loss into our life story and finding our own meaning in it.

  • Bereavement and grieving is a lifelong process: it comes and goes with each new loss or transition (coming to college, leaving home, graduating, getting married, having a child, starting a job, moving, other deaths, ending or beginning a relationship/friendship).

  • Grieving involves emotional pain: we often try to avoid this…even though we readily accept that it is part of healing physical wounds. Think of having an invisible heart wound, or soul wound.

Some things to understand about the journey of grief:

  • It’s not necessary to do all of the pain at once: we try to do it in regular doses (when we experience pain). This is similar to taking a dose of medicine for a physical wound. Taking all of your medicine at once could kill you…but in doses it brings temporary relief that allows you to go about your business until it’s time for the next dose. Over time, you need less and less, and you don’t have to take it as often.

  • It is important not to do ALL of the painful work ALONE or without support (though sometimes we do need solitude) Sometimes we need to teach others how to help us.

  • It is not a linear process: It ebbs and flows.

  • A “conspiracy of silence” is what keeps people from talking to each other about loss. “I don’t mention it because I don’t want to upset you, and you don’t mention it because you don’t want to upset me”. We conspire to keep silent.

  • S.T.U.G. reactions (T. Rando) are a normal part of the grieving process: S.T.U.G. stands for “Subsequent, Temporary, Upsurge of Grief” and are triggered by sudden, unexpected reminders such as hearing a song, etc.

  • Every person’s grief and mourning process is a unique experience. For numerous reasons, no two people grieve in exactly the same way(s), or for the same amount of time, or to the same intensity. There are some commonalities, however.

  • Our goal is to recognize the similarities that we see in each other and honor and support the differences.

This document has been provided by Carol Evangelisto, PhD and edited by Actively Moving Forward® (AMF), a Healgrief® program.

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