If you’ve experienced grief, you know how debilitating it can feel: the sleeplessness, the unexpected triggers that send you spiraling, the feelings of shame at not being able to “get over it” — as many well-meaning friends have advised.
And if you’re in graduate school while experiencing grief, you’re coupling your loss with some major academic and societal pressures. Grad school can feel like a pressure cooker on a good day, but when combined with navigating loss, you may reach your boiling point.
But it’s important to know that you’re not alone, and your feelings are shared by many — in fact, likely many of your peers. A recent study examined the implications of one universally traumatic experience, the COVID-19 pandemic, revealing that college students consistently reported more distress and feelings of grief than other groups.
So, it’s time to arm yourself against grief in grad school with this guide, first understanding that it can happen — and then what to do if it does. Keep reading to discover what grief looks like, how and where to seek help, how to support someone going through grief, self-care and coping strategies, and more.
The Grief Roller Coaster
Grief is an emotional reaction to experiencing loss. It can come from losing an important person in your life, the end of a relationship, a traumatic event, a medical diagnosis, and much more.
You’ll likely encounter a roller coaster of emotions as you process your grief. The twists, sudden drops and loops remind you that grief isn’t linear, and every person experiences it in a different way. It can even take you by surprise years after you experience your initial loss.
Here are some of the symptoms you may feel while experiencing grief:
Shock or Numbness
Being in a state of shock or feeling numb is an extremely common reaction to a significant loss. Maybe you feel like you’re living in a dream and unable to process the reality of the situation. These feelings can be a protection mechanism that help you cope with the overwhelming emotions that accompany grief and loss. It’s important to remember that the spectrum of emotions you may feel are all normal and that you will process them over time.
When you lose something important to you, it’s normal to feel anger as you process the loss. Maybe you feel anger at yourself, those around you, or at something you can’t quite place. Remember that this is a normal response, and it’s okay to feel angry. A crucial part of processing this emotion is finding ways to express your anger in a healthy way, such as journaling or talking to a trusted friend or counselor.
With loss comes the feeling of severe emotional pain. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming and hard to manage. This intense emotional distress can even lead to health issues or intensify the symptoms of existing conditions.
Depression or Despair
It’s also common to feel depressed or hopeless after experiencing a significant loss. Suddenly your world — and quite possibly, your future — looks and feels different. If you experience feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, or have lost interest in things you used to enjoy, you may be depressed. Talking to someone, whether it be a close friend or family member or an experienced therapist, is a great way to begin processing these feelings of depression.
When you experience a loss, it’s quite common to have feelings of guilt. These can arise because you feel like you could have done more to prevent the loss (which is likely not true), or you may feel guilty because of how you’re responding to your loss — either you’re “too emotional” or not emotional enough. It’s completely normal to have these feelings and questions of “what if?”, but you need to work through these feelings so that they don’t consume you.
Grief is more than just an emotional state; it can manifest in the body in a very physical way. Some common symptoms include fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, insomnia, and more. While you grieve, it’s important to do what you can to take care of your physical health by eating well, getting sleep, and regularly exercising. If you experience any severe physical symptoms or have symptoms that last for an extended period of time, you should consult with a medical professional.
Signs That You Need Help Coping with Your Grief
It’s okay to not feel okay. Too many people try to “stay strong” or “hold it together” while grieving. Unfortunately, this often results in unprocessed emotions that can impact your life in negative ways — nor or in the future. Here are some signs that you might need to get help processing your grief in a healthier way:
Your academic or work performance is slipping
When facing a significant loss, it can feel overwhelming and hard to concentrate on anything else. This can end up having a negative impact on your academic or work performance. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not able to show up 100%. However, if you notice that you’re struggling for a significant period of time, you should consider seeking ways to find help and support.
You stop going to classes
This sign often goes hand-in-hand with a slip in academic performance. If you find that attending classes is proving difficult, you may need additional help in coping with your grief. You’ll likely need to take time away from classes in the immediate aftermath of a loss, and you should communicate what you’re experiencing with a professor or advisor. They can help you navigate deadlines and expectations. But it’s also important to recognize if skipping class becomes a pattern, which could be a sign to seek help.
You stop socializing
If you’ve lost interest in socializing with friends or family, you may be struggling to cope with your grief. It’s common to want to isolate yourself after experiencing a loss, but withdrawing from your daily life and responsibilities can exacerbate feelings of depression and anxiety. Seeking support from friends, family, or a mental health professional or counselor can help you process your grief, develop coping strategies, and help you re-engage with your daily life.
You Aren’t Taking Care of Yourself
If you struggle to complete basic self-care tasks like showering, eating, or sleeping, it can be an indicator that you’re struggling with your mental health. Even though grief can feel all-consuming, it’s important to take care of your physical health alongside your emotional well-being. In fact, this may be the most important time to adopt a daily self-care routine that includes exercise like a brief walk, eating a balanced diet, and getting plenty of sleep.
You push loved ones away
Similar to avoiding socializing, the act of pushing away those we’re closest to comes from a desire to isolate as you process your emotions. But you need the support and presence of friends, family, and even classmates and work colleagues. If you avoid people who are trying to help you, you may worsen your feelings of isolation, despair, or loneliness. Recognize the signs that you may be pushing away your friends, like avoiding your text messages or canceling plans you’ve made.
Your levels of anxiety or depression are increasing
Feelings of anxiety and depression are common for anyone processing grief. It’s important to take note if any of these feelings are increasing over time or feeling out of control. If you feel like you are spiraling or hopeless, you should seek help from a professional.
Grief can trigger or exacerbate mental health conditions, and it’s crucial to address these symptoms promptly. Counselors can help you develop a treatment plan that addresses any pre-existing mental health conditions that may be affecting your ability to cope with your grief.
Healthy Ways to Manage Grief in Grad School
You may feel lonely if you’re experiencing grief, but you don’t have to go through it alone. There is support available to help you cope. It’s important to remember that what you’re experiencing is normal, and there are no universal rules for coping. The best approach is usually to take it day by day, understanding that grief often comes in waves. But for those times when you feel overwhelmed and need help, below are some healthy ways that can help you manage grief as a grad student.
Find a Therapist or Counselor Who Specializes in Grief
A therapist or counselor who commonly works with patients navigating grief may be best suited to support you in this time and help you process your emotions. These mental health professionals can provide a safe space for you to express your feelings and provide coping strategies. They can also offer guidance as you navigate your life after loss.
Many universities also offer free counseling services to students, so be sure to see if your school’s counseling center or health services can connect you with a professional.
Attend a Grief and Loss Support Group
Finding and connecting with peers who are also experiencing loss can be extremely helpful and comforting for you in the grieving process. There’s a wide range of grief and loss support groups, and you will likely be able to find a local option.
These groups can offer a safe and supportive space to share your feelings and experiences, and they also allow you to hear from others who are facing similar situations. You may also gain insight and advice from people who have already gone through what you’re feeling now.
Lean on Your Support System
Whether it’s comprised of friends, family, a partner, or any other important person in your life, a support system can be an invaluable resource for you. Know it’s okay to reach out and admit when you need help or just someone to listen. Talking to someone who cares about you can help alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness. Your friends and family can also help you with practical tasks like running errands, cooking, cleaning, and more.
Practice Intentional Self-care
Taking care of yourself and responding to your own needs may not come naturally to you while you’re grieving. It’s important, however, to remember that you need to be intentional about practicing self-care — for your physical and emotional well-being. Prioritize any activity that makes you feel good, which could include exercising, reading, cooking, or taking a hot bath.
Find Activities that Make You Feel Happy
It may be hard to feel joy in the early days of experiencing grief — and that’s okay. But as you work through your emotions, try to remember the activities that make you happy, no matter how small they may be. Whether it’s an active outing like hiking or biking, or a creative hobby like writing or painting, remind yourself to do the things that brought you happiness before the loss. Performing these activities can help bring you back to experiencing joy in the present moment.
Be Patient with Yourself
Grief is a complex and individualized process, and it’s important to be patient with yourself as you navigate your emotions. Recognize that healing takes time, and there’s no timeline for how long it will take to feel better. Allow yourself to feel all of your emotions, even the difficult ones, without judgment or criticism. Be gentle with yourself, and know that it’s okay to ask for help.
Express Your Feelings in Healthy Ways
Expressing your feelings in healthy ways can help you process your emotions and alleviate feelings of sadness or anxiety. Try journaling, talking to a therapist or trusted friend, or engaging in creative activities like writing or art. This can be a very helpful part of the healing process.
Avoid turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol or drugs, which can make your grief worse.
Know That it Does Get Easier to Manage with Time
You may not feel it right now, but do know that grief gets easier to manage with time. “You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you’ll learn to live with it,” write Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler in On Grief and Grieving. “You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same.”
But with the help of your support system, coping strategies, self-care and more, you can better process your feelings over time and move forward in a healthy way.
How to Support Someone Who is Grieving
There’s a chance you’ll experience loss during grad school, but there’s also a chance someone in your personal circle will need help recovering from a traumatic loss. Having emotional support during difficult times can provide an invaluable lifeline to someone in distress. If there’s
someone in your life who is grieving, here are some ways you can show up for them.
Offer Them Support
One of the most helpful things you can do is to let someone know you are there for them, whether you’re providing a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear. You can also offer support through practical help, like cooking meals or running errands. Be there as emotional support and acknowledge what they may be feeling at the time. It’s also important to be patient and understanding and to let them know that they are not alone in their grief.
Check in on Them Periodically
Grief can be a long and difficult process, and it’s important to check in on your loved one periodically. This could mean sending a text or making a phone call to see how they’re doing, showing up with a home-cooked meal, or simply being present in their life. Let them know that you’re there for them and willing to listen whenever they need someone to talk to.
Listen to Them
When someone is grieving, one of the most valuable things you can offer is a listening ear. Give them the space to express their feelings without judgment or interruption. Validate their experiences and feelings, and offer support and encouragement. It’s common for people to want to solve problems, but the most important way to show up may simply be to show up.
Show Them Patience and Grace
Grieving is a complex process, and it can take time. Be patient and understanding with your loved one as they navigate their way through the stages of grief. Everyone grieves differently, so try to avoid judging or pushing them to “move on” before they’re ready. Show them grace and compassion, and let them know that you’re there for them through it all.
Help Them Get Support if Needed
If your loved one is struggling to cope with their grief, don’t hesitate to offer help. Encourage them to seek support from a therapist or counselor, or connect them with grief and loss support groups in their area. Offer to help them make appointments or research resources. Let them know there is no shame in seeking help and that it’s a brave step to take.
Be a Cheerleader
Lastly, it’s important to be a cheerleader for someone you care about who is grieving. Celebrate their progress and accomplishments, no matter how small. Encourage them to take care of themselves and pursue activities that bring them joy. Let them know you believe in them and that you’re there to support them every step of the way. Positivity can go a long way.
Grief Resources for Grad Students
If you’re looking for more ideas to help you through this process or to understand grief better, we’ve rounded up some helpful resources. Below you’ll find reading recommendations, organizations, support groups and more that specialize in grief.
- Actively Moving Forward: This is a national organization that supports college students and young adults who are grieving the illness or death of a loved one by providing opportunities for peer support and community service.
- American Psychological Association: This national organization offers resources and support for mental health professionals and the general public. You’ll find a range of resources on topics related to mental health and wellness, including information on coping with grief and loss, managing stress, and promoting overall wellness.
- Center for Loss & Life Transition: Led by a death educator and grief counselor, this organization provides education on grief and loss. You’ll find lists of books, workshops, and other educational materials to help you navigate the challenges of traumatic loss.
- Council of Graduate Schools: Connect with this organization to find a range of resources and support specifically for students in graduate schools.
- “Finding Your Way Through Sudden Loss & Adversity”: This workbook by Ashley Davis Bush provides practical guidance for coping with sudden loss and adversity, including tips for self-care and finding support.
- Grad Hacker: This archived blog and community resource for graduate students provides insight on various topics, including mental health and wellness.
- Grief and Loss, Harvard University: Harvard University’s health services provide information on coping with grief, including articles, videos, and support groups.
- Grief Resources Bibliography, Hampshire College: Here you’ll find a comprehensive list of resources on grief and loss, including books, articles, and websites, compiled by Hampshire College’s counseling center.
- Griefshare.org: At this website, you’ll find support groups for those who have experienced the death of a loved one, articles, and videos on coping with grief.
- Hold the Door for Others: At this website, you’ll find resources for coping with grief after the loss of a child, including support groups, articles, and personal stories.
- Mental Health America: MHA is a nonprofit focused on mental health. It offers insight into bereavement and grief, including coping tips and how you can help others through grief.
- National Education Association: The NEA is a professional organization for educators that provides resources for coping with grief and supporting grieving students.
- The Dougy Center: This is a grief support organization for children, teens, and young adults who have experienced a loss.
- The Jed Foundation: This nonprofit organization is dedicated to promoting emotional health and preventing suicide among college students.
- The National Grad Crisis Line: This crisis line is specifically for graduate students experiencing emotional distress.
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Crisis Text Line: This free, confidential resource is available 24/7 for those in crisis to receive support and resources. You can connect online or by dialing 988.
- Your university’s counseling center or student health center: Spend some time researching your school and whether they offer mental health support and counseling services for students.
Interview with a Grief Expert
Tasca Tolson is a trauma-informed mental health educator with TMT Consulting. As a skilled mental health professional, she has years of experience in various roles within the mental health field. She has specialized in treating substance abuse and alcoholism for many years and now also works closely with teens and adults experiencing depression, relationship issues, and recovery from trauma. She works with individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, with a special emphasis on supporting historically marginalized populations.
How can students navigate the grieving process while also managing the demands and stressors of graduate school?
One of the most important aspects of trying to do well in school and navigate the grieving process includes being kind to oneself. A person needs to evaluate what they need during their time of grief. Communicating with professors is really important as well. I have found that most professors will work with students when they have losses within a term; however, no one knows what you’re going through if you don’t let them know how to support you. Students should evaluate what they are able to do during their time of grief. This could look like asking for an extension on assignments or classes. Students should allow themselves an adequate amount of time to grieve, because sometimes pushing through can resurface in other areas of life. This can look like an increase in anxiety, stomach issues, headaches, and increases in problems within important relationships.
What strategies can be used to balance self-care and academic responsibilities while grieving?
As you probably already know, self-care looks different for everyone. The easiest answer to this question is to identify what brings you joy or peace and do more of that. I always encourage individuals to remember that physical health and mental health go hand in hand. Any kind of moving around, being outside, and eating well all contribute to being able to heal. While navigating completing academic responsibilities, I encourage individuals to know what their limits are. You only get one opportunity to live this life, and having boundaries in place to protect your mental health is important.
How can students communicate their needs to their advisor and peers while grieving without feeling vulnerable or judged?
I think students need to remember that advisors and teachers are human, too. Individuals who work in this position as a career are humans that have had lived experiences often similar to what students are going through. Again, I have found that people that are in the land of academia are there to help, and they want you to be successful. As someone who teaches on a regular basis, I would rather have my students come and tell me what’s going on so that I know how to support them.
How can graduate students support their peers who are grieving while also taking care of themselves?
One way to help support someone who is grieving is to ask them what they need. A lot of times people make assumptions about what help looks like. For instance, often people try to take people who are grieving food, when nine times out of 10 they’re not even going to eat the food. Sometimes just being present with that person is really important. Also being present long term is helpful. Oftentimes individuals are surrounded by support at the beginning of a loss, so it is when time has passed that they will need the most support.
What coping mechanisms have been found to be effective for graduate students experiencing grief, and how can students find the best approach for their individual needs?
Again, coping mechanisms are going to be different for everyone. Some people like to be alone, some people like to be with others, some people eat, some people cry, some people shout. One of the things that I found useful for me when I was dealing with three losses in a six-month period of time: I went to a smash house. I had the opportunity to write about my losses on plates and then smash them with a sledge shammer. That was effective in that moment. Some individuals may need more support, such as talking with a mental health provider.
How can a graduate student navigate the guilt or shame that may arise from taking time off or seeking support while grieving?
I often say that self-care is the best care. Those thoughts of guilt may come; however, trying not to let them stay is an approach that has worked for some. When thinking about the loss, remember the only reason we grieve is because we loved. Some people never have that experience, and that in itself takes time to process.