Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight. –Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
What is Grief?
Loss…Losing…No longer having something or someone that we once had. It is an inevitable part of being a human, and it can be a painful and confusing part of being a human. Usually we think about the death of a person when we think of grief, but the truth is, we grieve all kinds of losses:
- The ending of a relationship (a romance or a friendship)
- The death of a pet
- Loss of a job/change in jobs
- A change in health/illness/injury (yours or someone you love)
- Loss of a hope or dream
- Leaving home
- Moving to a new place
- Loss of financial stability
- Loss of sense of safety after a trauma
Being a young adult almost requires experiencing losses of various shapes and sizes with so many transitions geographically and socially, first loves (and hence, first breakups), and, for many students, first deaths. Some of these losses—like moving or graduating—are more predictable and can allow some time to prepare for the changes, though there is grief in the anticipation of the grief. Sudden losses—like accidents, or unexpected breakups—can be traumatic and challenge your sense of security.
What does grief look like?
Grieving a loss—be it the loss of a person, pet, important relationship, or familiar surroundings—is a very normal, yet very unpredictable, response. So, every person’s grief is going to look different. Some people cry, some people don’t. Some people want to talk about it right away, some people need time to process on their own before they can share their thoughts with someone else. It’s normal to experience changes in appetite, trouble sleeping, nightmares, depressed thoughts, feeling guilty, fear of your own death or other worries, and even thinking that you see or hear the person who died. Sometimes people feel anxious or want to isolate themselves.
There are some phases of grief, but they are not linear and a person may move through several cycles of them every day, and some people may not experience them all. The phases established by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross are:
- Denial: This is not actually happening. Nothing has changed.
- Anger: This is not fair. Who can I blame?
- Bargaining: If you make this not be true, then I will…
- Depression: I am so sad I can’t do anything.
- Acceptance: I understand that this was inevitable, and it’s OK.
What can I do to help my student?
There is no exact timeline for how long grief should last or formula for how to respond. Lots of people can move through their grief with the support of family and friends, and some people might be more comfortable talking with a therapist or spiritual leader. If your student is grieving, they may flip-flop between wanting to be alone and wanting to be around people, allow them some flexibility and be patient. Sometimes when someone is grieving we want to avoid the subject so we don’t make them feel worse, and that makes them feel even more isolated. Provide invitations for your student to talk about their struggles with the changes in their lives. Some things that might be helpful are:
- Validating their experience (It’s OK to be angry, confused, sad, lonely, scary, etc.)
- Avoid minimizing their reaction (i.e., “It’s no big deal.” “You will be fine.”—they probably will be fine, but right now they feel terrible and it IS a big deal.)
- Ask them about it
- Share your own experiences
- Memories of the same loss
- Other losses you have experienced and what it was like
- Let them feel sad
- Encourage healthy coping:
- Eating regular, healthy meals
- Doing things they enjoy
- Spending time with friends
- Spirituality/Religiosity and finding meaning through faith
- Reaffirm the grieving person’s role in your life – Remind him or her of their value and the meaning of life
- Acknowledge the difficulties in having easy answers to the hard questions about life and death – and affirm the appropriateness of questions and encourage conversation.
If you notice that your student is not returning to their previous level of functioning after a few weeks, or continues to have persistent thoughts about death, they might benefit from meeting with a mental health professional or joining a support group. If you have questions or concerns, please call us at the Counseling Center for a consultation: 509-313-4054