How Grief Affects College Students: 4 Ways to Cope

Carolina Jacobs

Feb 24, 2023

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Grieving after the death of a loved one or a traumatic incident can take a toll on your emotional, mental, and physical health. For college students, bereavement could hinder their academic performance and motivation altogether. 

Unfortunately, loss and grief are natural phenomena that significantly affect students. Studies show that 30%–36% of students lose someone in the first academic year — an additional 37%–44% experience loss after 24 months. 

Without a standard timeline for healing, students might have difficulty working through their loss while maintaining their grades. Allow this guide to help you explore the grieving process as a college student and navigate healing after loss. 

Defining Loss and Grief  

Although many people know grief to be a response to losing someone, many other types of losses can trigger it, including:

  • A serious medical diagnosis for someone you love or yourself
  • Heartbreak or a bad breakup
  • Traumatic experiences, such as an accident or natural disaster
  • Losing your job or changing companies
  • The end of a hope, fantasy or dream you had for yourself
  • Lost sense of safety
  • Financial instability
  • Moving out of your family home

For college students, especially, COVID-19 threw a wrench in students’ lives as schools transitioned to online learning and the overall college experience came to a screeching halt.

The disruptions to everyday life had dire psychological implications on students — many missed out on internship opportunities or experienced unemployment. Other students had to skip milestone celebrations, such as traditional orientations and graduations.

In fact, throughout the pandemic, studies suggest that each student suffered 6.33 losses, likely exacerbated by the number of deaths by COVID-19. By the end of 2020, one-third of college students lost a loved one, with nearly half losing someone since the beginning of 2019.

Grieving students often feel an overwhelming sense of despair and anxiety, which may lead to an inability to concentrate on their schoolwork. However, students must take special care of themselves to function through trying times.

4 Ways to Cope With Grief in College

Suffering a significant loss is challenging to process, regardless of age. College students might consider the following four ways to cope with their grief.

1. Journal

Journals are practical tools for writing down your thoughts and working through your feelings. Many people might even consider them a safe, private outlet to speak freely without judgment or concern.

Journaling was introduced as a therapeutic technique in the 1960s and is continuously used today. When dealing with loss and grief, journaling helps improve immunity and sleep, lowers one’s heart rate and blood pressure, and reduces feelings of tension, depression, and anxiety. 

2. Spend Time in Nature

Spending time in nature has therapeutic and recuperative effects on the mind and body. Actually, studies have shown that just 20–30 minutes in nature weekly has a positive impact on stress and depression. In comparison, college students who spend a minimum of 120 minutes in nature per week report greater feelings of happiness and well-being.

Whether sitting on a park bench or walking, you can substantially help yourself work through a loss. Movement releases feel-good chemicals in the body, improving our mood, appetite, and sleep patterns. 

Nature may also have other health benefits for grieving college students. Scientists believe there’s an innate, ancestral need to connect with nature when we have a heightened sense of survivability. As such, nature helps restore our cognition and boosts concentration — perhaps most important to help college students get back on track in their studies.

3. Speak to a Counselor or Therapist

While 63% of college students report poorer mental health than before the pandemic, only 30% seek help from a therapist. Yet, a therapist could serve as an excellent guide for dealing with loss and grief.  

Considering how grief affects college students’ concentration and ability to complete their coursework, the support a therapist provides could enable a more successful recovery from a loss. 

Grieving students can check with their college or university’s counseling services whenever necessary. There may also be bereavement resources and group support in the community if you choose to pursue help off-campus.

Of course, you should also speak with your professors or advisors for assistance if grieving is getting in the way of academics.

4. Practice Self-Care

Sometimes, all you can do to handle your grieving process is practice self-care. For some students, self-care might be a cup of tea with a cozy blanket. For others, spending quality time with a close friend or buying yourself an ice cream sundae is also helpful.

Other ways you might practice self-care to cope with loss and grief include:

  • Meditation or yoga
  • Writing a letter to yourself or the person you lost
  • Start a creative hobby
  • Practice breathing techniques
  • Watch your favorite movie
  • Order delivery or takeout for yourself
  • Take a warm bath
  • Create a scrapbook of happy memories

There may be times when you feel like doing nothing at all. If so, honor your feelings and be patient as you figure out how to heal. 

Take Your Time to Heal Your Loss and Grief

There’s no right or wrong way to cope with a significant loss. Healing is non-linear and you can’t rush the process — but trying these four coping strategies might make the healing journey easier to move through. However, for as much as you’d like things to be normal again, always show yourself grace and patience.

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