Parts adapted from the Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Counseling Center (1991)

What is Grief?

Grief is a normal and natural response to loss. Whether the loss involves the death of a loved one, the end of a special relationship, or becoming disabled -- and whether the person is a senior citizen, a child or a college student -- anyone can experience loss and grief.

At many points after a loss, the grieving person can benefit from the support of others. Individual grief reactions can vary widely, not only from person to person, but also within the same person over time. Accordingly, friends need to be ready to accept and support the griever through a wide range of emotions.

Reactions to Grief

People who are grieving will experience many reactions to their loss as they work toward resolution. At various times, but especially at first, the grieving person may experience intense and sometimes conflicting feelings or may deny that the loss has occurred. Strong feelings such as sadness, helplessness, loneliness, guilt, or anger can emerge. Experiencing and accepting these feelings as natural represents an important part of the recovery process. Ultimately, the grieving person reaches a point in the recovery process where the loss becomes integrated into his or her set of life experiences. He or she is now better able to carry out the tasks of daily living.

Throughout the recovery period people who are grieving will experience many reactions. Some of the following reactions may indeed be experienced many times:

  1. Denial, shock, numbness -- reactions which distance the grieving person from the loss, thereby protecting him/her from being overwhelmed by emotions.
  2. Emotional releases -- these reactions accompany realizations of different aspects of the loss, they frequently involve much crying and they are often important to the healing process.
  3. Reactive Depression -- natural feelings beyond sadness (e.g., feelings of loneliness, isolation, hopelessness, self-pity) which occur as the person more clearly recognizes the extent of the loss. For many, reactive depression is part of the necessary internal processing of the loss which the grieving person must go through before reorganizing his/her life.
  4. Panic -- feeling overwhelmed, confused, fearful, unable to cope, and even believing something is wrong with oneself.
  5. Remorse -- following a loss (whether through death, relationship breakup or disability) a grieving person sometimes becomes preoccupied with thoughts of what he/she might have done differently to have prevented the loss or to have made things better. This can be helpful as the person tries to make sense out of his or her situation, but can also lead to unrealistic feelings of remorse or guilt.
  6. Anger -- this is a frequent response to a perception of injustice and powerlessness. A significant loss can threaten the grieving person's basic beliefs about himself or herself or about life in general. As a result (often to the grieving person's bewilderment), he or she can feel anger not only at a person perceived as responsible for the loss, or at God or life in general for the injustice of the loss, but also -- in cases of loss through death -- at the deceased for dying.
  7. Need to talk -- in order to recognize and come to terms with the impact of the loss, the grieving person may express feelings, tell stories and share memories, sometimes over and over with many different people.
  8. Physical ailments -- in response to the emotional stress of grief, many people are more vulnerable to a variety of physical ailments over the six to 18 months following loss (e.g., colds, nausea, hypertension, etc.).

Obstacles to Grief

Grief is a misunderstood and neglected process in life. Because responding to losses and death is often awkward and uncomfortable for both grievers and helpers, those concerned may avoid dealing with grief. With the myth that college years are always "happy years" and the concurrent failure to recognize that death of someone close is not the only type of significant loss, many potential helpers don't even recognize that a student, employee, or friend is grieving. Additionally, in cases of death, the student in college may be living far away from others who are experiencing the same loss. All of these factors can contribute to make the experience more lonely and unhappy than it might be otherwise.

Society promotes many misconceptions about grief that may actually hinder the recovery and growth that follow loss. For example, friends and family may make statements such as, "You must be strong," "you have to get on with your life," or "it's good that he didn't have to suffer." Such cliches may help the one saying them, but are rarely helpful to the griever. Other misconceptions may be that it is not appropriate to show emotions except at the funeral or that recovery should be complete within a prescribed amount of time. Still other misconceptions would imply that the grieving person is being inappropriate when at times he or she breaks away from the grief, laughs, plays, is productive at work, etc. Friends need to avoid these and other ways of predetermining what another's grief process should be like. An individual may have both personal and cultural differences in the ways that he or she deals with grief; friends need to support the bereaved in recovering and restoring balance in his or her own way.

Guidelines for Helping Someone Who is Grieving

Friends often ask themselves questions such as: What should I do? What should I say? Am I doing the right thing? What can I do better? Here are some suggestions for helping the person in grief.

  1. Take some kind of action. Make a phone call, send a card, give a hug, attend the funeral, help with practical matters (e.g., meals, care of children).
  2. Be available. Allow the person time so there is no sense of "urgency" when you visit or talk.
  3. Be a good listener. Accept the words and feelings expressed, avoid being judgmental or taking their feelings personally, avoid telling them what they feel or what they should do.
  4. Don't minimize the loss and avoid giving cliches and easy answers. Don't be afraid to talk about the loss (i.e., the deceased, the ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, the disability, etc.).
  5. Allow the bereaved person to grieve for as long or short a time as needed. Be patient, there are no shortcuts.
  6. Encourage the bereaved to care for themselves. They need to attend to physical needs, postpone major decisions, and allow themselves to grieve and to recover.
  7. Acknowledge and accept your own limitations. Many situations can be hard to handle, but can be made easier with the help of outside resources -- books, workshops, support groups, other friends, or professionals.

Support for the Helper

Supporting a grieving person can also be stressful for the helpers; they need to take care of themselves while also attending to the needs of the grieving person. Since helpers themselves are often grieving, they may need to address their own healing process. This may include having the opportunity to express their own emotions and turning to other friends for support.

Final Note

Just as there is no single pattern to grief, there is no single way to help a grieving person. Both the grieving person and any friend who is trying to help may feel unsure and uncomfortable. Either way, remember that it is important to be yourself. Furthermore, remember that as a friend, just by listening and being with the grieving person, you probably are helping.

Need Additional Help?

For more information on the grieving process and how to help yourself or someone in grief, here are a few excellent references, some of which may be available at Cole Library or the Counseling Resource Library:

  • Bloomfield, H.H. Colgrove, M., & McWilliams, P. (2000). "How to Survive the Loss of a Love." Mary Books/Prelude Press.
  • Edelman, H. (1994). "Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss." Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
  • Kushner, H.S. (1981). "When Bad things Happen to Good People." New York: Schocken Books.
  • Kreis and Pattie (1969). "Up From Grief." Harper and Row.
  • Miller, J. (1978). "The Healing Power of Grief." Crossroad Books, Seabury Press.
  • Tanner, J.J. (1976). "The Gift of Grief: Healing the Pain of Everyday Losses." Hawthorne Books.
  • Myers, E. (1986). "When Parents Die: A Guide for Adults." Penguin Books.

More information is available by checking other web resources on grief and loss:

Tom Golden's Crisis, Grief, & Healing page -info, suggestions, links to resources

American Hospice Foundation -many links on grief and loss issues in their "Grief Center"

Virtual Pamphlet Collection -click on "Grief" for links to info. at other college counseling centers; an especially good link is "Healthy Grieving" from the U of Washington

Actively Moving Forward - Information on grief in general and specifically for college students, virtual support groups, and more. 

Finally, don't forget campus resources like the Counseling Center (x4292; 319-895-4292), Chaplain (x4402; 319-895-4402), RAs, PA, ADRLs, and advisors, and other faculty and staff members. 

Off campus resources such as family, friends, physicians, clergy, and therapists can also be helpful in times of grief and loss. 

Faculty and Staff may access the Chaplain as well as the EAP through Morneau Shepell (1-877-851-1631). 

Also, the Foundation 2 in Cedar Rapids has a 24-hour crisis line at (319) 362-2174.