Helping Students Cope with Grief & Loss

A guide for Occidental faculty, staff and community members.

(This guide draws from material posted by USC and Cornell College.)

Your influence shapes much of our students’ experience at Oxy. While there is a universal desire to respond to our students’ needs when they are in distress, many are uncertain about how to respond effectively and have asked for guidance on what to say or do. Here are some ways to recognize common expressions of grief and respond supportively in those moments, as well as a listing of available campus resources.

Understanding Grief and Loss

What we learn from the Stages of Grief model

1.     Denial and Isolation: The first reaction is to deny the reality of the situation. Many people rationalize overwhelming emotions. It is what helps to buffer the immediate shock. This is a response that carries us through the first wave of pain.

2.     Anger: Reality and its pain emerge, yet we may not be ready. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected, and expressed instead as anger.

3.     Bargaining: The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control. We may make a deal with God or our higher power in an attempt to postpone the inevitable. This helps to protect us from the painful reality.

4.     Depression: It is helpful to focus on what we can control and let go of and what we cannot. Expend energy on changing your coping skills, increase problem solving skills and increase support. Along with feeling intense sadness, we may also experience worry, regret, fear, and uncertainty.

5.     Acceptance: This is different from feeling “good” or “OK” about the loss. Most people don’t ever feel OK, but we learn to accept this new reality and adjust to the changes that may go along with the loss. This stage comes with time, is a process and as we move through the loss with coping skills and support we can achieve this stage. Self-compassion, kindness, and patience from others is helpful when striving for this goal.

What are some common reactions to grief?

Emotions: sadness; anger/ irritability; fear; guilt; anxiety; loneliness; helplessness; shock; yearning; relief; numbness.

Physical Sensations: hollowness in stomach; tightness in chest; tightness in throat; sensitivity to noise; sense of de-personalization, “this isn’t real”; breathlessness; weakness in muscles; lack of energy.

Cognitions: fatigue; disbelief; confusion; preoccupation; sense of presence; hallucinations.

Behaviors: sleep disturbance; appetite changes; absent-minded behavior; social withdrawal; dreams of deceased; avoiding reminders of deceased; restless hyperactivity; difficulties concentrating; crying.

Goals to move toward during grieving

People may cycle in and out of phases as they:

  • Process feelings

  • Make adjustments in order to cope, thrive

  • Accept the reality and integrate memories and the past in the present

A note on Traumatic Grief

A sudden, unexpected loss may not only activate a grief response, but may also trigger a traumatic grief response. When the death is violent, such as from a homicide, suicide, overdose or accident, a person could experience overwhelming emotions related to that loss. It is important to recognize the difference between a normal grief response and a traumatic grief response.

A normal grief response has a range of emotions and behaviors. The grieving person will feel sadness, confusion, longing or wishing things could have ended differently, difficulty sleeping, change in eating patterns, etc., as described in the previous section.

Traumatic grief is more complicated, but has more conflicted feelings that can interfere with the natural grief process. As the person mourns the loss, they visualize the details of the traumatic event and re-experience it. That can become overwhelming to a person and they push it out of their mind. But this makes the grief process longer as the person goes back and forth mourning then pushing the traumatic details away. The person can become stuck in processing of their grief and experience debilitating feelings of loss of safety, trust and control.

Not all grief is traumatic, but all traumatic experiences include grief responses that are normal and natural. Helping people to recognize that what they are feeling is “normal” is very helpful as the person moves through the grief process.


Guidelines for Helping Someone Who is Grieving

Friends often 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.

  1. Take some kind of action. Make a phone call, send a card, give a hug, attend the funeral, help with practical matters (e.g., meals, running errands, laundry).

  2. Be available. Allow the person time so there is no sense of urgency when you visit or talk.

  3. 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.

  4. Don't minimize the loss and avoid giving cliches 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.).

  5. Allow the bereaved person to grieve for as long or short a time as needed. Be patient, there are no shortcuts.

  6. 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.

  7. Acknowledge and accept your own limitations. Many situations can be hard to handle, but can be made easier with the help of outside resources like books, workshops, support groups, other friends, or professionals.

Support and Resources

Support is available to any students who are struggling. We encourage you to utilize resources listed below.

Emmons Wellness Center: Counseling appointments are available to students Monday-Friday, 9-5 p.m. by calling (323) 259-2657. Walk-ins are available Monday-Friday, 3-4:30 p.m.

What’s the Word, Hummingbird: Drop-in chats for students with marginalized identities hosted by Emmons counselor Anna Rivera on Tuesdays from 2-3:30 p.m. at the ICC.

Between the Lines: Drop-in chats for athletes hosted by Emmons counselor Rich Estrada on Fridays from 12:30-2 p.m. in the Media Room at the Payton Jordan Athletic Center.

Phenomenal Womxn: A support group for Black womxn hosted by Emmons counselor Irma Breakfield on a monthly basis: 2/26, 3/25, and 4/8 from 12:30-1:30 p.m. at the ICC.

Men of Color Support Group: A support group for men of color hosted by Emmons counselor Rich Estrada on Wednesdays from 12:30-1:30 p.m. at the ICC.

Oxy 24/7 Confidential Helpline: (323) 341-4141

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255


Adapted from materials from the University of Southern California