Grief and loss

Dealing with loss or the death of a friend or family member is incredibly difficult, and there are no standard or typical ways to grieve. For students, grief and loss can be especially difficult to understand and work through. If, after a considerable period of time a person is still not coping well with grief, they may require further support.

Signs someone isn’t coping with grief and loss:

  • considerable weight changes

  • extended withdrawal from friends or family

  • significant difficulties at work or school

  • hopelessness or preoccupation with death

  • antisocial behaviours

  • their level of distress is getting worse with time.

Boy with head in hands sitting on bench

What is grief?

Grief is a reaction people experience in response to loss or death. There is no typical response to grief or loss, nor is there any set time frame that a person may take to grieve. Intense grief may last weeks or months, and many people continue to grieve throughout their life. Although no grieving is ‘easy’, the circumstances of the loss can greatly affect the grief experienced. Deaths that are sudden, violent and unexpected can be the most difficult for young people to come to terms with.

In response to grief and loss, people may experience feelings of:

  • sadness

  • numbness

  • anger

  • anxiety

  • guilt

  • shock or disbelief.

Students may also behave differently. Some common changes to behaviour are:

  • difficulty concentrating

  • mood swings

  • fatigue or poor sleep

  • increased need for attention

  • changes in relationships, including withdrawing from family and friends.

These feeling may be intense for weeks or months and can result in a person withdrawing for a period of time from friends and family. If this persists, and a person feels too overwhelmed to return to work or school in some capacity after a significant period of time, it may be an indication that they are not coping with their grief and may benefit from support services.

Grief and loss over time

Grief does not have a fixed timeline for recovery. For most students, they will find that as time passes they are more able to return to their previous activities and their everyday life will be less impacted by grief. But, it is normal for students to have good days and bad days, and often the anniversaries of significant events or reminders of the loss can result in stronger feelings of grief during that time.

What students can do about grief and loss

When experiencing grief it is important that people allow themselves time to grieve and understand that it is okay to express the emotions that they are experiencing. For example, crying is a very common and natural response to grief. Furthermore, it is important to grieve in a manner that allows for remembering and still feeling connected to the person who has passed away whilst also learning how to adjust to the changes that have occurred.

Taking care to look after themselves, such as having regular meals and showers, and undertaking some gentle exercise, such as walking, can help with grief management. Setting aside a period of time each day to grieve can be useful. This time can be used as an opportunity to express and acknowledge emotions or could be a time to meditate. Keeping a diary, and writing down personal feelings and memories of the person who has passed away, is a good way to self-reflect and to remember the person that has passed away and how important they were. Keeping a diary can also be a useful tool in assessing the grief processes, and to raise awareness of how this will change over time.

Finally, talking helps people to process thoughts and emotions. It can be helpful to friends and family about the situation, or other support people, such school counsellors or a psychologist is often helpful. This is especially important if someone is feeling they cannot cope with grief.

ReachOut.com resources on grief and loss

  • Working through grief

  • Building coping skills

  • Common reactions to death

  • Managing grief during the festive season

  • Grieving for a stranger

What can I do now?

  • Acknowledge the young person's loss and the need to take time to grieve.

  • Encourage them to take time, while paying particular attention to taking care of themselves.

  • Help them to reflect and find meaning in the loss.

  • If their grief is having a long term impact on their mental health over a sustained period of time, consider recommending a visit to a psychologist

  • Help students deal with grief using our mental health classroom activities.