Unfortunately, many students will experience grief and loss at some point during their college careers. Losses can take many forms, including the breakup of a dating relationship, the end of a friendship, or the death of a friend, family member, or classmate. While the experience of loss and the reactions associated with grief vary from person to person, knowing more about what to expect from the grieving process can be helpful.
Grief requires a great deal of emotional and physical energy. Many people find after a loss that they feel tired much of the time, and that it is more difficult to complete even everyday tasks. Difficulty concentrating, low motivation, feelings of sadness, anger, or numbness, insomnia, forgetfulness, muscular tension...all of these reactions are common and normal during a time of grieving. It is important to keep in mind that these experiences are part of a natural healing and recovery process for human beings, and that the feelings will shift and become easier to manage over time.
For some, the grieving process is experienced in different stages. These can include:
Denial, shock, and feelings of detachment/numbness can be common reactions, particularly after first learning of a serious loss. This can be thought of as a protective mechanism. By experiencing denial, a person has time to gradually become aware of the reality of the loss, without being overwhelmed too early by intense feelings. As with other aspects of the grieving process, the experience of denial tends to subside with time, which can open the grieving person up to other feelings that may be even stronger, such as sadness or anger.
While sadness is a commonly-recognized aspect of the grieving process, many people may not expect anger to emerge at a time of loss. Anger may be experienced as generalized feelings of irritability, such as being more easily frustrated or having a short temper. It's also common to feel angry at a friend or loved one who is no longer here, or at the world or a higher power for the unfairness of death/loss.
The experience of bargaining can be a reflection of the helplessness and uncontrollable/unpreventable aspects of certain losses. A person may speculate as to what they could have done differently that might have kept the loss from occurring, or think about what they would do or change if only they could have the person whom they have lost back in their lives. In some cases, this bargaining can also include feelings of self-blame or guilt.
As with other aspects of grief, guilt can take many forms. These may include ruminating about regrets from past interactions with a loved one, blaming oneself for the situation that brought about the loss, or feeling guilty about being alive after someone else has died. In many cases, guilt can represent an attempt to cope with a loss of control. That is, it can sometimes feel easier to blame oneself for a loss than to accept the fact that some losses are unpredictable and that tragedies can occur without warning or reason. And as with other aspects of grieving, feelings of guilt can be easier to manage by discussing them openly with someone supportive.
It is perfectly normal to feel sadness at a time of loss. This sadness may include crying spells, loneliness, feelings of pessimism, a lack of enjoyment, or a wish to keep a distance from other people. For depression that includes strong feelings of hopelessness or an inability to follow through on major life tasks, it is important to seek additional help from a professional.
Acceptance of a loss takes time. It is important to remember that acceptance does not mean a lack of sadness and does not mean believing that a serious loss is "acceptable." Rather, acceptance can be thought of as a stage in which the loss becomes more fully and manageably integrated into a person's life. This stage can include acceptance of oneself for experiencing grief and an awareness of coping strategies and other sources of support.
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