Responding to any death, especially a sudden one, can be a very disorienting experience. Many of us are left feeling confused, shaken, and vulnerable. The aftermath can be anguishing for many of us and create a jumble of emotions which can include sadness, helplessness, guilt, and even anger. Frequently we find ourselves wondering whether these feelings are "normal", or acceptable, and wondering “what do I do” to deal with our feelings.

It is important to recognize that we all deal with grief and loss in different ways, and at an individualized pace. There is no one "right" way to respond. It can be very helpful during this time to reach out to others in whatever ways feel comfortable. This might include connecting with friends and family, or perhaps trained professionals. We at CAPS want you to know that we will be available to help people heal through this process in any way that we can. Please don't hesitate to contact us.

Common Reactions

When a tragic loss occurs, people will experience a range of normal reactions. 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. Experiencing and accepting these feelings as natural represents an important part of the recovery process. 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. Ultimately though, and with time, 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.

Examples of the reactions one may experience due to loss might include the following:

Physical Reactions

  • Fatigue
  • Nightmares
  • Changes in appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Exhaustion
  • Digestion problems
  • Underactivity
  • Hyperactivity
  • Headaches

Cognitive and Behavioral Reactions

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Flashbacks
  • Inability to attach importance to anything other than the inciddent
  • Difficulty solving problems
  • Memory disturbance
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Isolation
  • Denial
  • Thoughts of suicide

Emotional Reactions

  • Fear
  • Anxiety/panic
  • Guilt/remorse
  • Sadness or depression
  • Irritability or anger
  • Emotional numbing/shock
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Frustration with bureaucracy
  • Over-sensitivity
  • Amnesia for the event
  • Violent fantasies
  • Loneliness

Again, these are normal reactions and, although painful, are part of the healing process. There's not a lot anyone can do to take away the uncomfortable feelings, but there are things you can do to manage your reactions and make the healing process more bearable.

Tips to Help During the Grief Process

  • Alternate periods of physical exercise with relaxation; this may alleviate some of the physical reactions to stress.
  • Structure your time/keep with your routine if this can be helpful; keep your life as normal as possible.
  • Reach out and talk to people – people do care and talk is the most healing of medicines.
  • Spend time with others.
  • Beware of numbing the pain with overuse of alcohol or other drugs.
  • Help your peers as much as possible by sharing feelings and asking how they're doing.
  • Give yourself permission to feel what you feel.
  • Keep a journal; write your way through those sleepless hours.
  • Do things that feel good to you or something you enjoy doing.
  • Don't make any big life changes.
  • Do make as many daily decisions as possible that will give you a feeling of control over your life.
  • Be patient with yourself.
  • Do not compare yourself to others.
  • Go through the mourning process at your own pace.
  • Admit you are hurting and go with the pain.
  • Face the loss.
  • Stop asking “Why?” and ask “What will I do now.”
  • Recognize that a bad day does not mean that all is lost.
  • Rest. Exercise. Eat regularly.
  • Don’t stay in bed. Get up and shower.
  • Accept your feelings as a part of the normal grief reaction.
  • Schedule time alone.
  • Do not overdo it.

Common Myths About Grief

These and other myths can make the process of grieving more painful and difficult by creating unrealistic expectations for your recovery and preventing you from asking others for the support you need:

  1. Grief is the same after all types of death.
  2. There is a specific amount of time to get over your grief.
  3. All bereaved people grieve the same way.
  4. Your grief will decline over time without any upsurges.
  5. When grief is resolved, it never comes up again.
  6. You and your family will be the same after the death of a loved one.
  7. It is not okay to feel sorry for yourself.
  8. There is no reason to be angry at your deceased loved one.
  9. Men and women grieve the same.
  10. Children grieve like adults.
  11. You will have no relationship with your loved one after his or her death.
  12. Once your loved one has died, it is better not to focus on him or her but to put him or her in the past and go on with your life.

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.

  • Make a phone call, send a card, give a hug, attend the funeral, help with practical matters (e.g., help prepare meals or run errands).
  • 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.
  • Don't minimize the loss and avoid giving clichés 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.).
  • 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.

Additional Resources

Half of Us
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)
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
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. Provides a great deal of useful information relating to grief and loss after a suicide.

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

The information above was adapted from Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Montana; Cornell College, Counseling Services Grief Resource Page; Bereavement and Support by Marylou Hughes Taylor & Francis, 1995.