“In my early years of grief, after losing my mother, I felt like I was wearing a banner or sash which read the girl whose mother died.”
“I once believed I had to ‘redefine’ my life without that brother/sister relationship. I have learned though, that I am and will always be a little sister. And I have learned that I like it that way.”
When we experience the death of a loved one, we may want to understand our future by searching for the “stages of grief.” When we are confused about how to move forward, it is common to look for concrete answers. However, there is no set pattern to grief.
Each person’s grief is unique.3 Grief is neither predictable nor orderly. When we try to fit our grief experience into a predefined box, we end up feeling that we are doing it wrong. This is not true.
Expect to feel a variety of emotions
Coping with loss will bring on a multitude of emotions. You may feel sadness, shock, denial, anxiety, fear, disorganization, guilt, regret, anger, or relief often accompanied by guilt for that relief.4 It is important to acknowledge that none of these emotions are bad. There is no right way to grieve.
How your emotions present themselves may surprise you. Unexpected emotional triggers may leave you feeling overwhelmed and frightened by grief at times. You will learn your triggers over time and find ways to cope with them.5 Even if you find yourself crying in the middle of the grocery aisle next to their favourite food, there is nothing wrong with you.
You may also feel nothing at all. Numbness is part of the early grief experience for many. It serves to protect us during high stress by providing a buffer between accepting the reality of death while your emotions catch up.6
Grieving may take longer than you expect
Western culture often encourages the denial of pain.7 Remaining “strong” or “in control” is praiseworthy. By holding in your feelings, people may congratulate you for “doing well.” These compliments fail to acknowledge that grieving means becoming familiar with your pain and expressing it openly when needed.
You cannot force yourself to overcome the pain all at once. It is best to dose yourself in embracing your pain.7 Sometimes you will need to talk through your feelings, and other times you may need to distract yourself from them. As much as you may try, you cannot and should not try to speed up your grieving, or “get over it.” Regardless of what you want, grieving is not something you can opt out of. In order to heal, you must go through it.
“Grief is a process, not an event.” – Dr. Wolfelt
Your needs are unique
Our culture impacts how we grieve. The type of support that will help you most may be different depending on how you were raised.8
If you were raised with a Western perspective, you may benefit from sharing openly about people you have lost and having others’ offer you tangible support, like helping you with daily tasks. However, those raised with a different cultural lens may be more likely to experience shame and regret when receiving tangible supports. If that is you, you may benefit more from positive social interaction without having to discuss your grief.8
These differences imply that you cannot assume what support should look like for you based on someone else’s suggestions. Only you can decide what support you need.
You have the right to use ritual, embrace your spirituality, search for meaning, and treasure your memories.9 Find those who will not be critical of your reactions and questions about this death; you are allowed to be confused and angry. Some questions you might ask like, “Why now?” may never have answers, but they may be important for you to ask. You can choose to grieve however feels right to you.
Acknowledge your role as a student
Be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits when grieving,9 as a student, you have many responsibilities. The fatigue that comes with grief will lower your energy, leaving you less equipped to handle the things you once could. Decreased productivity at work and school are often a part of early grief experience.5 You are not a failure for doing less.
Try your best to respect what your body and mind are telling you. You are in survival mode; so, take breaks, pass off some responsibilities, and ask for support. This does not mean you are weak or feeling sorry for yourself. As a student, it is important to reach out to your professors and academic advisor for accommodations if you need them. Often your faculty can do more to support you if they know what you’re coping with as it is happening, rather than retroactively. As difficult as it is to be vulnerable with school staff, it isn’t worth sacrificing your future for something you could receive accommodations for.
Put your best effort into nurturing your body. Disturbed sleeping patterns, appetite changes, and a weakened immune system are typical during grief.5 Try to rest daily, eat balanced meals, and engage in light physical activity to support your health while coping.
Be wary of making major decisions during early grief unless absolutely necessary.10 Often times these strong emotions can cloud our judgment. Deciding what to do after you graduate, whether to move cities, or how to handle your money can be difficult to do without a clear mind. If possible, it is often better to wait to make major decisions or to make them with support from others.
You will heal from this loss. However, you will have to adapt how you see yourself in the world without that person. Allow yourself to feel confused and ask questions as you learn to accept that. You can acknowledge that your life may never be the same without them. Healing is not about returning to normal, it is about finding your new normal and learning to reconcile who you are now. Grief can be overwhelming and drain you. Be patient with yourself.
The Student Wellness Centre provides counselling support to those struggling with grief and loss. Call 905-525-9140 x27700 to book an appointment with a member of our counselling staff. Alternatively, visit our website’s “Programs” page to learn about the different counselling and support groups offered by the SWC.
If you are looking for more content on grief, check out this page on resources for young adults. It has a library of podcasts and resources which can be filtered for topic/type of death, the person who died, and type of resource.
Looking for more coping strategies? Here is a resource from Halton/Peel’s Bereaved Families.
By: Summer Clarke