The process of grief

Gareth Hughes

Gareth Hughes is the Clinical Lead for Student Space and is a psychotherapist, researcher and writer on student wellbeing, including the book Be Well, Learn Well

The grieving process is often unpredictable and has been described as being like a roller coaster. In the early stages, you may find that you experience extremes of mood. As time moves on, these tend to become less extreme and gradually more manageable.

Sometimes, you may find that how you feel changes rapidly and for no identifiable reason. For example, many people describe the experience of having a day when they feel fine and then suddenly finding their mood plunging downwards, as though an emotional trapdoor had been opened up beneath them. This is normal: it isn’t a nice experience, but it’s a common part of the grieving process.

There is no normal timetable for grief, and there is no way to force yourself to feel differently or move on more quickly. Nor are there set stages that you will inevitably go through. Try not to second guess or judge yourself for how you are feeling.

When considering this, be careful of ‘shoulds.’ Many students can find themselves having thoughts like “I should be able to manage this better.” Or “I should be crying more.” Or “I should have moved on by now.” There is no right or wrong way to experience grief and so there are no ‘shoulds.’

You aren’t weak because you are still feeling down months after the loss. Alternatively, if you aren’t crying and feeling horrendous all of the time, it doesn’t mean you didn’t care or that you’re not grieving properly. The experience you have just is.

Generally, if you can accept the process as it works for you, work with it, rather than trying to supress or force it and take care of yourself while you recover, then you will move through and gradually start to feel better. Eventually, you will reach a point where you will remember the person or thing you have lost, but you will nevertheless be ready to move on and live a fulfilled life.

Grieving as a student

Being a student while grieving can bring its own challenges.The unpredictability of the process also applies to your academic learning. Some students find they are completely unable to engage with their programme in the immediate aftermath of a loss. So it may be worth letting your lecturers know about your situation, so if you do miss class or need an extension, they are aware of this in advance.

Some students find that immersing themselves in their studies is the thing that keeps them going. Others find themselves in between these two experiences, perhaps finding there are some days they can’t work and others when they are very focussed.

All of these responses are normal and whichever you experience is ok. Use the support at your university to help you, accept whatever is possible for you right now and make use of the days when studying is possible. This phase will pass, so use support services and your university’s procedures to help you and to manage the impact on your studies.

Page last reviewed: October 2022