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Understanding & Navigating Grief: Resources for Online College Students

Discover essential strategies, resources, and support systems to help online college students navigate the challenges of grief and loss. This guide offers practical advice, emotional insights, and academic tips to empower you on your journey toward healing and resilience. Read on to start your path to healing.

Author: Rebecca Newman
Editor: STEPS Staff
A person with curly hair and glasses comforts a grieving individual wearing a green sweater who is sitting on a couch, covering their face with one hand. The background features light-colored walls and a potted plant, echoing the sense of loss in the room.

Beginning college comes with so many adjustments: You’re pursuing your future career, and as an online student, you’re likely taking on more responsibilities outside of school — maybe a new job, a move, and simply finding your independent footing in the world.

With all of these changes already in progress, your world can be sharply disrupted by a death or loss. Whether unexpected or anticipated, this kind of upheaval can take a toll on your studies. But you’re not alone – studies reveal that one-third of college students are in bereavement at any given point in time, and that by the end of their academic career, over 60 percent of college students report having lost at least one loved one during that time.

Given that death and loss are such an integral part of the human experience, we’ve compiled a comprehensive resource to offer guidance and support. Below you’ll explore:

  • What to expect during and after a loss
  • Coping strategies that may invite relief from overwhelming emotions
  • Suggestions for how to support a friend in need

The practical tools you need to navigate loss are within reach; keep reading to learn more.

Understanding Grief and Loss

Before we look at how to handle grief and loss, it’s important to better understand what they are, including rich perspectives from researchers about what you can expect as a part of the process. As an online college student with a wide array of responsibilities and demands, it’s important to have some guidance on what you may experience as a result of a loss.

Definition of Grief and Loss

Loss, the process of losing something or someone important, and grief, the anguish experienced after a substantial loss, are intense emotional experiences that are universally human. While in college, you may experience feelings of grief over a variety of losses, including the death of a loved one, a breakup, the death of a pet, a close friend moving away or other change in a friendship’s cadence, losing a job, being cut from a team or excluded from another important group, or a change in physical ability or wellness.

Stages of Grief

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s 1969 book “On Death and Dying was revolutionary in changing how we talk about death and grief. Prior to that, death was a taboo subject of conversation, and it was considered selfish to subject others to the discomfort of talking about it.

Kübler-Ross’s work was groundbreaking in identifying stages as well as how we should use them — not as a linear set of “steps,” but instead, as touchstones that many people experience.

The basic tenets of the Kübler-Ross model include:

  • Denial: This is a defense mechanism to protect the individual from the painful reality ahead. Denial often follows the shock of a new diagnosis, denying its validity, or downplaying the significance or impact of a diagnosis or loss.
  • Anger: This phase is characterized by the externalization of frustration and ire that accompanies the pain of a loss or diagnosis.
  • Bargaining: When someone experiencing loss wants some control over their reality, they may seek ways to soothe them or lessen the blow, such as “I just want my parent to live until my graduation,” or “Please wait until after finals to break up with me.”
  • Depression: The most easily understood component of grief and loss, this stage includes feelings of sadness, fatigue, and loss of interest in activities that result from a loss.
  • Acceptance: Often misunderstood as a positive ending, this is the point at which the individual ceases to bristle against the loss but begins to move with it, participating in memorializing their loved one and creating their legacy.

These stages are not intended to be a comprehensive list of experiences you may have while grieving and have inspired other models with expanded categories. But they provide a foundation for understanding how humans process loss.

Individual Experiences

The most important thing to remember is that your personal experience of grief is unique, your own, and will not follow the identical pattern or format of anyone else’s process. While you may connect with others who are grieving with whom you share similarities in your process, know that you will have your own experience and evolution of emotions, symptoms, and timeline. There is no right time or right “place” to be in your coping, and the best thing you can do is to attune to your needs and seek out aid during the process.

Common Reactions to Grief

Even though grief is a universal experience, our individual reactions are highly personal and variable. Some of the reactions you experience may seem typical or you might anticipate, and others may be completely unexpected. It can be helpful to better understand what you may experience to feel less alone and then focus on how to best manage those reactions. If you notice that you are experiencing many of the reactions below and that they are making it hard to complete your daily responsibilities at school or work, please seek professional support or counseling to monitor your symptoms.

Emotional Reactions

There are emotions that we typically associate with grief, notably sadness, and then there are others that we may not anticipate or are unique to our own experience.

During your grieving process, you may experience:

  • Anger
  • Guilt, especially if you had unresolved conflict, or survived an accident, for example
  • Confusion, especially if the cause of death or loss is uncertain
  • Relief, if the person or relationship you’re grieving played a complicated role in your life
  • Shock, if the loss was sudden
  • Unmoored feelings or a loss of belonging
  • Dread about the days ahead, particularly without your loved one
Physical Reactions

Our bodies are excellent barometers for what is happening environmentally around us – have you ever noticed that you might get a headache when the barometric pressure is high? Our bodies are also attuned to our emotional changes, and we can notice physical reactions when we experience something as deep and profound as grief.

You may notice:

  • Physical fatigue, feeling like your body struggles to move or you feel achy
  • Change in appetite, either eating too much or too little
  • Sleep disturbance, either sleeping too much or too little
  • Moving or speaking more slowly than usual
Cognitive Reactions

Our cognitive abilities — including functions like perception, memory, learning, attention, language, and decision-making — can also be affected by grief. You may find it difficult to focus on small or large tasks when you feel consumed by sadness and loss. While this is typical, you should seek support if you notice that your grief is affecting your studies and academic standing. Here are a few of the cognitive reactions to grief you might notice:

  • Struggles with concentration or focus, like reading, completing assignments or watching TV
  • Having a hard time making decisions, particularly as they relate to the person you’re grieving
  • Memory difficulties, both short- and long-term, like having a hard time remembering small tasks or keeping your schedule
Behavioral Reactions

Some behavior changes may include:

  • Skipping class
  • Missing deadlines
  • Overall changes in academic performance, perhaps in conjunction with cognitive struggles
  • Canceling plans with friends
  • Not responding to outreach from others/social isolation
  • Having so much sleep disturbance that your schedule is “off” — sometimes meaning you’re up most of the night and sleeping all day, resulting in missing important commitments

Coping Strategies for Dealing with Grief

None of us is a perfect vessel of emotional coping. But we can still put our best foot forward and use strategies that we know are based in evidence to be cumulatively helpful rather than those that offer immediate numbing but are ultimately stunting. Keep in in mind that sometimes when we’re looking at coping strategies, we need to look beyond what will feel good in this very moment and think about what will help us feel better long-term. We might have to ride the wave a little longer, but we are usually grateful that we took the more sustainable path in the long run.

Healthy Coping Mechanisms

The word “healthy” can mean a lot of things, and here, we are looking at habits and activities that are sustainable and meaningful. While they may not have the immediate release of more indulgent methods of coping like substance use, drinking, or engaging in any activity in excess, these can be strategies in your toolbox for managing grief or any other stressful time in your life:

  • Journaling. This can help with reflection and processing.
  • A mindfulness practice. Try an app like Headspace or Calm to begin, and start with small goals.
  • Spend time outdoors, especially in nature. Identify a local trail or park for a walk or bike ride.
  • Creative arts can provide positive mental distractions. Consider pottery/ceramics, drawing/painting, photography, creative writing, fiber arts (knitting, crocheting, etc.), gardening, or coloring mandalas or adult coloring books.
  • Exercise, especially in groups, can be particularly effective. You may want to try a fitness class or find groups that meet for free exercise, like the November Project.
Seek Out Support

Humans are meant to be social creatures, and we need each other for support when we are experiencing loss or sadness. Do not try to muscle through on your own; instead, you may find support from:

  • Family members
  • Friends
  • Support groups
  • Faith communities
  • Activities/teams
  • Online communities
  • Mental health professional

Talk to people who can offer you quality and meaningful support. Not everyone will have the skills or ability to support you, and that’s okay. Many people struggle to figure out how to talk about death and loss, but they still want to be there for you. While no one can undo the loss you’re enduring, experiencing empathy and compassion will help in the healing process.

Practice Self-Care

Caring for your body is one of the best things you can do while grieving. Focus on maintaining your basic functions as well as tending to things that make you feel like yourself when you can.

This should include:

  • Drinking enough water (the Mayo Clinic offers guidance about just how much).
  • Eat a variety of nutrient-dense foods.
  • Savor treats and eating them mindfully.
  • Prioritize restful sleep.
  • Move your body – take walks, pace around your home to keep your body moving.
  • Engage in exercise – types you typically enjoy like a bike ride, yoga/stretching, or a run or hike.
  • Attend to your grooming – shower regularly, get haircuts, trim your nails, wear laundered clothes that you change daily.
  • Care for your living space – organize and clean it, vacuum, wash your bedding, and attend to your dishes.
  • Spend time outdoors in the sunshine (wear sunscreen!).
  • Engage in mindful relaxation like reading, journaling, watching some TV (not endless binges), or listening to music/podcasts.
  • Find occasions for laughter – a funny movie, comedy show, or podcast.

How to Support a Grieving Friend or Family Member

Watching someone you love endure a substantial loss can be painful in its own right. You may be worried about what to say and what not to say, and you likely want ideas that will actually help. If so, take your desire to support your loved one and channel it into some of the strategies below. The most important thing to remember is that as a support person, you are focused on providing compassion, empathy, and kindness to the affected person. You might not get big, effusive “thank you” messages through this time, but know that you are helping.

Supporting a Grieving Friend

How to Help:

When your heart is in the right place and you want to support a friend in need, remember that it’s about helping them wherever they are in the process, and it might feel uncomfortable for you. You won’t be able to fix how they feel or lessen how hard it is; instead, the gift you can offer is tuning into their emotional state and sitting with them in their grief.

Practice active listening and being present. Try to focus your offers for help on specific, time-limited things. A good way to do this is to gather a group of friends to create a list of support tactics (late-night calls, grocery shopping, laundry, activity buddy), identifying who can readily fill those roles — your night-owl friend, for example, can field late-night calls, while the avid runner in the group can meet up for a workout. Then offer this practical list to your grieving friend to have on hand.

Remember to be patient, as grief lasts for a long time even when someone has an immensely supportive crew.

What to Say and What Not to Say:

Do say:

  • I care about you, and I’m here for you.
  • This is so hard, and I am so sorry that you’re going through this.
  • Can I stop by and [do task or bring item] today or tomorrow?
  • What things can I take off your plate so you can focus on one thing at a time?

Don’t say:

  • Let me know if you need anything!
  • They’re in a better place/Look at the silver lining…/any sentence that starts with “At least…”
  • Oh, I thought you’d be past that by now/You’re still upset about that?/It’s time to move on.
  • It’s not that big of a deal, it was just [person, object, loss]
  • Most “problem-solving” offers

Additional Student Grief Resources

Books and Articles

  • “Bearing the Unbearable” operates from the premise that “if you love, you will grieve.” The book offers concise chapters with stories about grief and compassionate advice from those who are further along in the process.
  • Coping with Grief and Loss in College is a first-hand account of grief written by a University of Missouri student. She discusses how she dealt with the loss of her grandfather during her freshman year of college, which included accessing her school’s counseling center.
  • Not all losses are wholly sad; some carry with them an element of relief. These losses are complex because of the challenging relationship you had with your loved one during their lifetime. I’m Glad My Mom Died is the provocative title of Jennette McCurdy’s story about the complicated relationship with her mother and processing the experience of her death.
  • Surviving Life After a Parent Dies, or SLAP’D, is an online publication with articles and experiences from those who have lost a parent, going to the honest and vulnerable places of this specific variety of loss.
  • “We Get It” is a collection of first-person accounts of young adults experiencing grief. This resource is compiled by the community at HealGrief, an organization that offers support via an app, individual support, and support groups.

Online Resources

  • Coalition to Support Grieving Students is geared toward students who are experiencing grief, offering direct support to students. Institutions looking to adopt a grief-sensitive approach will also find resources.
  • Grief in Common invites you to create a profile and share details of your grief experience. Through connection, college students can find others who are undergoing similar situations and discover new coping strategies.
  • The Jed Foundation is a directory of resources and referrals for mental health support for young adults, with a wide array of information to support a student’s goals — both personal and academic.
  • Modern Loss has an active social media presence and is a repository for advice, books, resources, and articles to support you at any stage in the grieving process without pretention or façade.
  • Open to Hope is a non-profit with the mission of helping people find hope after loss. You can read, listen and share your stories of hope and compassion. College students can write for the website to help others who might be experiencing their own grief.

Helplines

  • If you are feeling lonely, depressed, overwhelmed, or even having thoughts of suicide, call Hey Sam, a hotline from Samaritans Hope. It’s staffed by other young adults, is free, and confidential. Text 439-726 to connect.
  • If you are in crisis and have thoughts of harming yourself or others, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline by dialing 988 or texting 74174.
  • SAMHSA National Helpline (1-800-662-HELP) is a confidential, free, 24/7/365 bilingual (English and Spanish) information service with referral and treatment information for people experiencing mental health challenges, including referrals for support groups and community-based organizations.
  • Your university’s student counseling service (like UNLV’s Counseling and Psychological Services — called CAPS) likely has crisis advice and can schedule urgent appointments for students experiencing grief. Check your university’s directory for more information.
  • Your Life Your Voice has a helpline (1-800-448-3000), text line (text VOICE to 20121), staffed email account, or mobile app to connect with those in need to address many mental health challenges, including grief.

Interview with an Expert: Grief and College Students

To provide further context into how students face grief in college, we sought the expert perspective of Anna Murphey, LCSW, who is a licensed therapist specializing in grief and loss based in Philadelphia. She received her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011. Previously in her career, Anna worked as a hospice social worker supporting patients and families facing terminal illness and end of life. She is the founder and director of Skylight Wellness Center, LLC, a private therapy practice where she counsels adults and caregivers of all ages facing a variety of grief and loss concerns, including anticipatory grief and ambiguous loss. Her techniques include mindfulness, somatic, and nature-based modalities.

Q: How does grief typically affect college students differently compared to other age groups?

A: People of any age can lose a loved one to death. But it’s important to note that there are many types of grief, not just death-related grief. Many college students I work with are experiencing anticipatory grief or ambiguous loss, for example, due to a parent or grandparent’s chronic illness or disability. Because these experiences are not widely recognized, students can feel isolated in their grief or not even realize that they are grieving.

Q: Can you explain the difference between normal grief and complicated grief?

A: Complicated grief occurs when normal symptoms of grief do not improve over time, as they usually do, but linger or get worse. There is no set timeline for grief. But when a person continues to struggle with intense grief in a way that affects their daily routines and relationships for over a year after the loss, it may be time to seek professional support.

Q: What are some common ways grief can impact a student’s academic performance and concentration?

A: A student who is grieving may experience intense thoughts and feelings about the loss that make it difficult to maintain focus and concentration on schoolwork. Sleep disturbance is another common symptom of grief. When a student has trouble sleeping or is sleeping too much, this can also affect academic performance. Because grief still carries a stigma, a student who is struggling might be reluctant to seek help.

Q: How might grief affect a student’s social life and relationships on campus?

A: For some students, grief can lead to social withdrawal and isolation. A student might attempt to avoid social situations that trigger painful thoughts or emotions about their grief. Or they might have trouble opening up to peers about their feelings due to fears of being misunderstood. I often ask my clients to identify at least one understanding friend they can talk to about their loss. When they can do this, it often brings immense relief.

Q: What are some long-term effects of unaddressed grief in college students?

A: Grief is a universal human experience that requires compassionate care and support. Unaddressed grief in college students can lead to negative outcomes such as depression, anxiety, alcohol or substance use problems, poor academic performance or withdrawal, and difficulty forming or maintaining relationships. With support from family, friends, spiritual or religious communities, and mental health professionals, students can move through their grief with more resilience and even find meaning in their experience.

Q: How can students prepare for significant dates or anniversaries that may trigger grief reactions?

A: I encourage my clients to prepare for these significant dates or anniversaries by first anticipating the triggers (for example, peers discussing Mother’s Day or Father’s Day plans) and the difficult emotions such as sadness, envy, or regret that may arise. I then invite them to make a plan to honor the loss or engage in healthy distractions and to talk to a trusted friend or family about their feelings before, during, and after the date.

Q: What should a student do if they feel overwhelmed by their grief and responsibilities?

A: If a student feels overwhelmed by their grief, I would advise them to seek additional support from their college or university’s student counseling services or a licensed therapist. A therapist will help clients to process their grief, reduce stress, and practice self-compassion. Many students find peer support to be especially helpful, and there are many online grief groups and resources. I recommend The Dinner Party, which focuses on grief support for younger adults.

Q: How can students communicate their needs and boundaries to professors and peers during their grieving process?

A: Students can advocate for themselves by acknowledging that grief is affecting them, ask professors for extended time on assignments, and request time off from classes and other commitments to attend memorials or other family responsibilities. A student might ask friends to check in more often or to honor their need for a little more space during their grieving process. There is no right way to grieve, and communicating one’s needs to others is key.

Q: What are some practical tips for managing grief during high-stress periods, like finals or important projects?

A: Students can take several steps to manage grief during high-stress periods, such as limiting extra responsibilities, getting plenty of rest, eating healthy foods, exercising, and taking breaks when needed. Remember to check in regularly with friends to share feelings. Most importantly, try to set realistic expectations and accept imperfection. Grief is hard, and this is a time to give yourself some extra grace.