Navigating Grief as a College Student: A Compassionate Journey Through Loss

Jennifer L. Horowitz, PhD
Navigating Grief as a College Student
Jennifer Horowitz 260x300
Jennifer L. Horowitz, PhD, Executive Director of Counseling and Psychological Services

Navigating grief is a journey we all embark on at some point in our lives. It's a natural, albeit challenging, part of the human experience. Despite its universality, many find themselves grappling with how to cope effectively. Self-care becomes paramount during these times, as does the art of listening to our own needs. Equally crucial is extending our support to those around us as they navigate their own tumultuous emotions.

The mere thought of confronting grief can be daunting. Understanding its nuances, learning to manage its weight, and extending a compassionate hand to others in mourning are all vital skills in this journey. 

What Does Grief Look Like? 

In the face of loss, some individuals may not even acknowledge that they're undergoing a grieving process. Grief is an incredibly personal experience, manifesting uniquely in each person. It is important to know what it feels like to you, so you can be better in tune with your emotions and cope in a productive manner. Here are some of the most common symptoms of grief:

Physical Symptoms of GriefEmotional Symptoms of Grief
  • Restlessness

  • Decreased energy
  • Decreased motivation

  • Changes in attention, sleep, and appetite
  • Sadness

  • Denial

  • Anger

  • Numbness

  • Irritability

Although these are the most common symptoms, you may not feel all of these things. For some, grief is less noticeable even within themselves. It is important in times of loss to pay extra attention to your emotions, and notice any changes you may feel. Identifying that you are grieving is the first step in managing grief. 

How Can I Handle My Own Grief? 

When people acknowledge their grief, they often struggle to cope with it. This can sometimes lead them to turn to unhealthy ways of dealing with their emotions or to try to push those feelings away altogether. However, these choices can end up making things worse in the long run.

Thankfully, there are many effective methods that people have found helpful in dealing with grief. While not every method will work for everyone, there's no harm in exploring different approaches to find what works best for you.

Popular Coping Mechanisms

  • Staying connected: Reach out to friends and family! It is important to stay in touch with people who care about you and will be there for you. 
  • Patience: It is important to be kind to yourself – Remember that coping with intense emotions like grief takes time, you cannot expect to feel better overnight.
  • Self-Care: Pay some extra mind to taking care of your needs- make sure you eat well, stay hydrated, get rest, and make time for the things you love doing. 

  • Reflection & Journaling: For many people, writing out their emotions can help in processing and managing how they feel. It can help you get in touch with yourself and what you are going through. 
  • Connecting with nature: A lot of people find that taking a moment to go outside and connect with nature can help them feel more at peace, and it can aid in lowering feelings of stress and anxiety.

The Seven Stages of Grief - Where are You?

Another helpful method for managing grief is to have an understanding of the stages of grief. In general, there are seven stages in the grieving process. Knowing what stage you are at can help you feel a sense of understanding in an otherwise confusing time, and can give you hints as to what to expect next. 

1. Shock

The initial reaction to a loss, may involve a sense of numbness or disbelief. 

2. Denial

This stage involves refusing to accept the reality of what has happened. This allows people to have an emotional buffer, but it is important to work towards moving out of this phase.

3. Anger

Once a person moves out of the numbness of the past two phases, they often shift into anger directed at the lost loved one, doctors, or other family members. It is important to address your anger at this time, and not refuse the feeling. 

4. Bargaining

Bargaining can come at any point in the process, and involves looking for any way to lessen the experience of grief. This is often when people turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, and it is crucial to stay in touch with your emotions at this point.

5. Depression

This stage involves feelings of deep sadness, and many people turn to self isolation at this time. The emotions experienced can also shift towards feelings of emptiness. This is a difficult but necessary step in healing.

6. Testing

This is when a person begins to experiment with ways to accept their loss. In this time you may drift in and out of other phases, and it is important to know that it is not regression to revisit stages. 

7. Acceptance

This does not mean you feel ‘okay’ or ‘better’, but rather an acknowledgement that the loss you have experienced is part of reality and that life continues anyway. This is when many people truly adjust to the changes in their life and begin moving forward. 

Having an awareness of what stage of grief you are in, although not necessary to handling grief, can help a person who may struggle to allow themselves to fully experience their emotions. It can give you a deeper understanding of how you are feeling, why you are feeling it, and how to move forward. 

How Can I Help Someone With Grief? 

It is not only important to know how to handle your own grief. Sometimes people in our lives are experiencing grief, and it is crucial to know how to give them the best help you are able to give.

  • Reach Out: If you know someone who is grieving, check in on them! Some people struggle to ask for help, and it can be helpful to provide them an outlet for their needs. Even something as simple as asking “Are you okay?” can allow a person in grief to feel safe enough to open up and talk about their experiences.
  • Listen: Sometimes all a person in grieving needs is a shoulder to cry on. If you are in the right headspace, the best thing you can do is be a listening ear. It is comforting to people to feel seen and heard in their feelings.
  • Know your Limits: Sometimes our loved ones need more help processing their grief than we can provide. In these instances, you could offer to help find resources such as grief counseling, support groups, or other professionals who can support them. 

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

Grieving is a long, complicated process. No matter how you handle grief or what stage you are in, it is important to know that how you feel is valid. Processing loss takes time, and it is important to allow yourself the space to feel your emotions fully and deeply. There is no “right way” to feel, and you cannot expect yourself to feel better instantly. 

During anniversaries and milestones, feelings of grief may resurface. Prioritizing self-care and compassion becomes crucial during these times. These moments serve as poignant reminders of loss, eliciting various emotions. Tailored self-care practices, such as reflection, engaging in comforting activities, or seeking support, help navigate grief with resilience. Extending compassion to oneself and others fosters healing, nurturing a supportive community of shared strength.

Seeking Help

If you're struggling with intense grief and feel like you could use some support, it's important to reach out. Remember, you don't have to face these emotions by yourself.

Students have access to a wealth of campus resources that can provide assistance during difficult times. If things feel overwhelming type “Breathe” into the MyWidener search bar for helpful contacts and information. 

Exploring faith and spirituality on the journey of healing after experiencing loss and grief can provide additional avenues for support. In many cultures, these elements are deeply ingrained and serve as pillars of strength during challenging times. If you find solace in your faith or spiritual beliefs, consider incorporating practices such as prayer, meditation, or seeking guidance from religious leaders into your coping strategies.

Know that you are always welcomed to schedule an appointment with CAPS, where trained professionals can offer guidance and support tailored to your needs. Taking this step to seek help can be a powerful act of self-care, guiding you towards healing and resilience.

Seeking additional support? Here are some resources to explore: 

As the Executive Director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Widener University, Jennifer L. Horowitz leads a dedicated team in providing comprehensive mental health support to students. With a focus on promoting well-being and fostering resilience, Jennifer is committed to creating a supportive environment where students can thrive academically and personally.