Grief is the normal response of sorrow, emotion and confusion that comes from losing someone or something important to you. It is a natural part of life.
Grief is a typical reaction to death, relationship break-up, failure to get into a coveted graduate school, job loss, a move away from friends and family, or loss of good health due to illness. The more significant the loss, and the more sudden, the more intense the grief. However, even subtle losses can lead to grief. For example, you might experience grief after moving away from home, graduating from college, changing jobs, selling your family home, having your best friends graduate and move away, an athlete who is injured and can’t play their sport.
How does grief feel?
Just after a death or loss, you may feel empty and numb, as if you are in shock. You may notice physical changes such as trembling, nausea, trouble breathing, muscle weakness, dry mouth, or trouble sleeping and eating. You may become angry — at a situation, a particular person, or just angry in general. Almost everyone in grief also experiences guilt. Guilt is often expressed as "I could have, I should have and I wish I would have" statements. People in grief may have strange dreams or nightmares, be absent-minded, withdraw socially, or lack the desire to return to classes or work. While these feelings and behaviors are normal during grief, they will pass. However, contact CAPS at 616.395.7945 to speak with a counselor if your grief is interfering with your ability to meet college/class requirements.
How long does grief last?
Grief lasts as long as it takes you to accept and learn to live with your loss. For some people, grief lasts a few months. For others, grieving may take even longer. The length of time spent grieving is different for each person. There are many reasons for the differences, including personality, health, coping style, culture, family background, and life experiences — including past losses. The time spent grieving also depends on your relationship with the person lost and how prepared you were for the loss.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve — but there are healthy ways to cope with the pain. You can get through it! Grief that is expressed and experienced has a potential for healing that eventually can strengthen and enrich life, help you re-order your priorities and improve your existing relationships. Use of drugs, including marijuana, and alcohol may numb your feelings temporarily but this only prolongs your grief and intense feelings. You may also find you do not have any strong responses, and that is okay too.
Common symptoms of grief
While loss affects people in different ways, many people experience the following symptoms when they’re grieving. Just remember that almost anything that you experience in the first weeks and months following a death is normal — including feeling like you’re going crazy, feeling like you’re in a bad dream, reexamining your values and priorities, or questioning your religious beliefs.
- Shock and disbelief — Right after a loss, it can be hard to accept what happened. You may feel numb, have trouble believing that the loss really happened or even deny the truth. If someone you love has died, you may keep expecting them to show up, even though you know they’re gone. Examples include: “But I just saw them.” “No, it could have happened to them.”
- Sadness — Profound sadness is probably the most universally experienced symptom of grief. You may have feelings of emptiness, despair, yearning or deep loneliness. You may also cry a lot or feel emotionally unstable.
- Guilt — You may regret or feel guilty about things you did or didn’t say or do. You may also feel guilty about certain feelings (e.g., feeling relieved when the person died after a long, difficult illness). After a death, you may even feel guilty for not doing something to prevent the death, even if there was nothing more you could have done.
- Anger — Even if the loss was nobody’s fault, you may feel angry and resentful. This is very common if the death was by suicide. If you lost a loved one, you may be angry at yourself, God, the doctors or even the person who died for abandoning you. You may feel the need to blame someone for the injustice that was done to you. You may also feel angry at the deceased.
- Fear — A significant loss can trigger a host of worries and fears. You may feel anxious, helpless or insecure. You may even have panic attacks. The death of a loved one can trigger fears about your own mortality, of facing life without that person, or the responsibilities you now face alone.
- Physical symptoms — We often think of grief as a strictly emotional process, but grief often involves physical problems, including fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity, weight loss or weight gain, aches and pains, and insomnia.
Coping with grief and loss, tip #1: Reach out to others
The most important factors in healing from loss are acknowledging your feelings and having the support of other people. Even if you aren’t comfortable talking about your feelings under normal circumstances, it’s important to express them when you’re grieving and this can include writing them out, which many people find very helpful. Sharing your loss with someone else makes the burden of grief easier to carry. Wherever the support comes from, accept it and do not grieve alone. Connecting to others will help you heal.
Finding support after a loss
- Turn to friends and family members — Now is the time to lean on the people who care about you, even if you take pride in being strong and self-sufficient. Draw loved ones close, rather than avoiding them, and accept the assistance that’s offered. Oftentimes, people want to help but don’t know how, so tell them what you need — whether it’s a shoulder to cry on or help with funeral arrangements. Don’t worry about “making others feel sad” — sharing your thoughts and feelings is the #1 way to heal.
- Draw comfort from your spiritual beliefs – If you are a person of faith, embrace the comfort its mourning rituals can provide. Spiritual activities that are meaningful to you — such as praying, Bible study, or going to Chapel or Mass — can offer solace. If you’re questioning your faith in the wake of the loss, talk to a chaplain or a trusted faculty or staff person. There are many faith-based groups and resources on campus. Additionally, you may find comfort and support within your home congregation.
- Join a support group — Grief can feel very lonely, even when you have loved ones around. Sharing your sorrow with others who have experienced similar losses can help. If you are interested in a grief support group, contact CAPS at 616.395.7945.
- Talk to a counselor – If your grief feels like too much to bear, contact CAPS and speak with a counselor who can help you work through intense emotions and overcome obstacles to your grieving.
Coping with grief and loss tip #2: Take care of yourself
When you’re grieving, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself. The stress of a major loss can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves. Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time.
- Face your feelings — You can try to suppress your grief, but you can’t avoid it forever. In order to heal, you have to acknowledge the pain. Trying to avoid feelings of sadness and loss only prolongs the grieving process. Unresolved grief can also lead to complications such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse and health problems.
- Express your feelings in a tangible or creative way — Write about your loss in a journal. If you’ve lost a loved one, write a letter saying the things you never got to say, make a scrapbook or photo album celebrating the person’s life, or get involved in a cause or organization that was important to him or her.
- Look after your physical health — The mind and body are connected. When you feel good physically, you’ll also feel better emotionally. Combat stress and fatigue by getting enough sleep, eating right and exercising. Don’t use alcohol or drugs to numb the pain of grief or lift your mood artificially.
- Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel, and don’t tell yourself how to feel, either — Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to yell at the heavens, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy and to let go when you’re ready.
- Plan ahead for grief “triggers” — Anniversaries, holidays and milestones can reawaken memories and feelings. Be prepared for an emotional wallop, and know that it’s completely normal. If you’re sharing a holiday or lifecycle event with other relatives, talk to them ahead of time about their expectations and agree on strategies to honor the person you loved.
When grief doesn’t go away
If you aren’t feeling better over time, or your grief is getting worse, it may be a sign that your grief has developed into a more serious problem, such as depression, especially if you are starting to have thoughts of death. Please contact CAPS immediately. CAPS is located on the second floor of the Bultman Student Center.
Adapted and distributed with permission from University of Kentucky Counseling Center.
Talk to a counselor
If your grief feels like too much to bear, contact CAPS and speak with a counselor who can help you work through intense emotions and overcome obstacles to your grieving.