Understanding Grief

Grief is a normal response to loss. It is a deeply personal experience and something that is unique to each individual. Individual grief reactions also vary not only from one person to another but within the same person over time. Friends providing support need to be ready to accept and support the griever through a wide variety of emotions.

The following resources provide more information which you may find useful.

Common 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 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 or 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 or 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.  This sometimes happens 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.).

Adapted from Cornell College, Counseling Services Grief Resource Page

What You Need During Grief

Variables to the Grieving Process

20 Tips to Help During Grief Process

  1. Be patient with yourself.
  2. Try not to compare yourself to others.
  3. Go through the mourning process at your own pace.
  4. Admit you are hurting and go with the pain.
  5. Apply cold or heat to your body, whichever feels best.
  6. Ask for and accept help.
  7. Talk to others.
  8. Face the loss.
  9. Shift from asking “Why?” and ask “What will I do now?”.
  10. Recognize that a bad day does not mean that all is lost.
  11. Rest. Exercise. Eat regularly.
  12. Keep a routine.
  13. Try not to stay in bed. Get up and shower.
  14. Accept your feelings as a part of the normal grief reaction.
  15. Postpone major decisions whenever possible.
  16. Do something you enjoy doing.
  17. Write in a journal.
  18. Be around people.
  19. Schedule time alone.
  20. Do not overdo it.

Adapted from the Bereavement and Support by Marylou Hughes Taylor & Francis, 1995

How to Support Someone Who is Grieving

Friends often want to support a friend through the grief process, but 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.

  • 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).
  • Be available. Allow the person time so there is no sense of “urgency” when you visit or talk.
  • 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.
  • Try not to minimize the loss.  Avoid giving clichés and easy answers. Try not to be  afraid to talk about the loss (i.e., the deceased, the ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, the disability, etc.).
  • Allow the bereaved person to grieve for as long or short a time as needed. Be patient; there are no shortcuts.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Remember: 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.

Adapted from Cornell College, Counseling Services Grief Resource Page.

Grief After Suicide

Why did this happen? After losing someone to suicide, you may find yourself asking over and over again, “Why?”.

One of the first questions almost everyone asks after a suicide is, why? Why would someone you love end their own life? How could I not have seen this coming? Suicide is complicated, and it almost always leaves many questions unanswered. Often, we never learn exactly why our loved one took his or her life. But we can find help to find our way through this tragedy and support to go on living our lives.

More than 90% of people who take their own lives have an underlying mental disorder at the time of their death. Many times, that disorder was never identified.

The disorders most often associated with suicide are depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Substance abuse, either on its own or in combination with another mental disorder, can also be a factor when someone takes their own life.

These disorders can cause terrible suffering. They can affect a person’s ability to think clearly and to make decisions. They can interfere with seeking help, continuing treatment or taking prescribed medicines.

An underlying mental disorder alone is not usually enough. Most people who kill themselves experienced a combination of deep psychological pain, desperate hopelessness and challenging life events.

We know that suicide is the tragic outcome of a serious underlying illness combined with a complicated mix of individual circumstances. It is not a sign of moral weakness. It does not reveal a character flaw. It is not a sign of irresponsibility or a hostile act. It should not be a source of shame. Reading this paragraph below until it sinks in can help you to make sense of the suicide loss and begin your healing journey.

How to Cope

  • Intense feelings of grief can be overwhelming and frightening. This is normal. You are not going crazy; you’re grieving.
  • Feelings of guilt, confusion, anger, and fear are common responses to grief.
  • Know that you can survive, even if you feel you can’t.
  • You may experience thoughts of suicide. This is common. It doesn’t mean you’ll act on those thoughts. However, if you begin to feel like you may, ask for help or call 911.
  • Forgetfulness is a common, but temporary side effect. Grieving takes so much energy that other things may fade in importance.
  • Healing takes time. Allow yourself the time you need to grieve.
  • Grief has no predictable pattern or timetable. Though there are elements of commonality in grief, each person and each situation is unique.
  • The path of grief is one of twists and turns and you may often feel you are getting nowhere. Remember even setbacks are a kind of progress.
  • This may be one of the hardest things you will ever deal with. Be patient with yourself. Seek out people who are willing to listen when you need to talk and who understand your need to be silent.
  • Avoid people who try to tell you what to feel and how to feel it and, in particular, those who think you should “be over it by now”.
  • Give yourself permission to seek professional help. Find support that provides a safe place for you to express your feelings.

Adapted from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and SAVE: Suicide Awareness Voices of Education.

When and How to Seek Help

Whether you are struggling with feelings of grief, experiencing a situational problem, an immediate crisis, or have a longstanding mental health concern, the CSU Health Network Counseling Services is here to help. All students who are enrolled in at least one resident instruction credit hour and who pay the university health and counseling fee and are eligible to access care at the CSU Health Network, regardless of their insurance status

Crisis Intervention services are available by stopping by CSU Health & Medical Center, 151 W. Lake St. or calling (970) 491-7121 during regular business hours. We can provide an immediate assessment of the situation and, when necessary, facilitate a mental health hospitalization.

We are available for emergencies when our offices are closed by calling the CSU Mental Health Crisis Intervention line at (970) 491-7111. The on-call staff member will typically return the call within 15 minutes. In a life-threatening emergency, please go directly to the Poudre Valley Hospital Emergency Room (1024 South Lemay Avenue, Fort Collins) or call 911 for ambulance service.

Additional Resources

Half of Us has a whole host of valuable resources and information for students including content about grief and loss.

National Students of AMF Support Network also referred to as Actively Moving Forward with Grief is an organization of College Students supporting college students grieving the illness or death of a loved one. While many of their resources focus on the grief and loss of a family member, many of their resources are universally helpful.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide through research, education, and advocacy, and to reaching out to people with mental disorders and those impacted by suicide. They have provided a great deal of useful information relating to grief and loss after a suicide.

Ulifeline is an online resource center where college students can be comfortable searching for the information they need and want regarding mental health and suicide prevention.