Loss of a close friend, family member or fellow student can have a very significant emotional impact on you. This can often lead to a struggle with your mental well being and can make maintaining a consistent academic, social and work life very challenging. NUI Galway fully understands that and appreciates the significance of this for students and staff. Anything that can be done to make the bereavement process easier for students and staff will be done to best of the university’s ability.

What is grief?

Grief is a completely natural response to loss. It’s the emotional suffering you feel when someone or something significant is taken away. You may only think grieving happens after the death of someone you know. While someone dying does cause the most intense grief, other losses also require grieving, including:

  • A relationship breakup
  • Loss of health
  • Loss of financial stability
  • A miscarriage
  • Significant changes (e.g. leaving university, home) can mean the loss of a secure past
  • Death of a pet
  • Loss of a dream or ambition
  • A loved one’s serious illness
  • Loss of a friendship
  • Loss of safety after a trauma
  • Family home being sold

When coping with, for example, the death of a loved one, there is a myriad of feelings that will occur to you. It may feel like an emotional barrage being thrown at you and it is very important that you understand that most of what you are feeling in response to such a loss is completely natural.

Examples of things you are likely to experience in response to the death of someone close to you…

Sadness and loneliness: The loss of a loved one leaves you feeling sad and lonely. You may suffer deep sorrow that you are without the love and understanding of that person. When you have lost a partner or close friend you may be especially lonely as you were used to a close day-by-day relationship and shared everyday activities.

Anger : This is a frequent experience after the loss. The anger comes from a sense of frustration that there was nothing yourself, family doctors or God could do to prevent the death. You may also feel angry with the deceased for leaving you. 

Guilt and self-reproach: These are common responses to loss. You may feel guilty about things done of left undone, unresolved quarrels, words said or left unsaid. Usually people blame themselves for something that was neglected around the time of the death. Most often guilt is normal, though not justified.

Anxiety and Fears : Feelings of anxiety are common and stem from two sources. You may fear that you will not be able to take care of yourself on your own and your awareness of your own mortality is heightened by the death of a loved one. You may feel very vulnerable and lose confidence in yourself and in the world. Anxiety carried to extremes can develop into a phobia or lead to panic attacks.

Fatigue : Fatigue is frequently experienced and may take the form of apathy or listlessness. To a person who is usually very active this can be both surprising and distressing.

Despair and Helplessness : You may feel you cannot bear the pain any longer. The sense of helplessness engendered by death makes bereavement a stressful experience.

Shock : You may feel numb, bewildered, stunned and unable to think clearly. Shock occurs most often in the case of a sudden death. In some ways, shock protects you from the overwhelming feelings as it does not allow them all into consciousness.

Longing and Searching : You may have a sense of longing to see, hear, hold and talk to the person who has died.

Relief : It is normal to feel relieved after death of a loved one who suffered a lengthy or particularly painful illness. It is also normal to feel relieved that a person with whom you had a difficult relationship is no longer alive. Guilt often accompanies this sense of relief but it is a normal part of grief.

It is also quite likely that you may experience a number of physical sensations as part of grieving. Again, this is not unusual and is just your body responding to mental and emotional overdrive. However, if any of these feelings persist to a point of concern then it may be advisable to consult your GP or the Student Health Unit.  Physical responses to grief can include tightness in the chest and throat, feeling short of breath, hollowness in the stomach, muscular tension, diarrhoea, dry mouth, headaches or a sense of de-personalization (feeling detached from yourself, from your own feelings).

You are also likely to find yourself with a lack of appetite or inability to sleep comfortably. You may experience absentmindedness, social withdrawal, dreams or nightmares of the deceased, avoiding reminders of the deceased, sighing, over activity, crying, visiting places or carrying objects that remind you of the person, and/or treasuring objects that belonged to the deceased. Again, all of this perfectly normal and understandable. When grieving, you are entitled to feel these things. Given time they will pass, and generally speaking it is a temporal process that will gradually come to an end.

One of the ways of thinking about dealing with grief is in terms of a number of tasks that we have to complete.  A good model of this is one put forward by Dr. William Worden, an American psychologist, who described four key tasks.

The Four Tasks of Mourning

1. Accept the Reality of the Loss

When someone dies, even if the death is expected, there is a sense that it hasn't happened. The first task of grieving is to face the reality that the person is dead, that the person is gone and will not return, that reunion in this life is impossible. Denying the facts of the loss, the meaning of the loss, or the irreversibility of the loss only serves to prolong the grief process. Though denial or hope for reunion is normal immediately after the loss, this illusion is usually short-lived.

2. Experience the Pain of Grief

Many people try to avoid the painful feelings by various ways such as "being strong", moving away, avoiding painful thoughts, "keeping busy", etc. There is no adaptive way of avoiding it. You must allow yourself to experience and express your feelings, even if this takes time. Anger, guilt, loneliness, anxiety, and depression are among the feelings and experiences that are normal during this time. Recall and relate both pleasant and unpleasant memories of the deceased. Ask for the support of friends. Tell them what you need from them, because people often misunderstand the needs of grieving. Be assured that the memory of your loved one will continue, but the pain will lessen in time and will finally disappear.

3. Adjust to an Environment with the Deceased Missing 

This means different things to different people, depending on what the relationship was. Many survivors, especially widowed persons, resent or fear having to develop new skills and to take on roles that were formerly performed by the deceased. There may be many practical daily affairs you need help and advice with, but there will be a great sense of pride in being able to master these challenges. The emotions involved in letting go are painful, but necessary to experience. By not doing so, you will remain stuck in the grief process and unable to resolve your loss.

4. Withdraw Emotional Energy and Reinvest it in other Relationships

The final task is to affect an emotional withdrawal from the deceased person so that this emotional energy can be used in continuing a productive life. This does not necessarily mean finding a new spouse, surrogate mother, etc. It does mean re-entering the stream of life without your deceased loved one. You must rebuild your own ways of satisfying your social, emotional, and practical needs by developing new or changed activities or relationships. This is NOT dishonouring the memory of the deceased and doesn't mean that you love him or her any less. It simply recognizes that there are other people and things to be loved and you are capable of loving. Your relationship to the deceased person is not over, but it is different.

Coping with Grief and Ways to get Through it

One of the most crucial things to do is to not allow yourself to grieve alone for the entire process. While time to sit alone with your thoughts, reflections and meditations on the way you are feeling is also important. It also so important to accept the support of others in your time of grief. Connecting with others will help you to heal. Communicating to others your feelings on the matter, allowing yourself to vent emotions to them by talking or crying, even just exchanging happy stories from the past will be one of the most cathartic and beneficial things you can do during the grieving process. Remember that everyone needs support when grieving and those who care for you know that and know that you would do the same for them.

Take care of yourself. You may lose appetite and sleep during the period following the loss but remember that you must look after yourself. A healthy body will contribute to a healthy mind and you will to keep your health in balance. Similarly, exercise will usually help you feel better emotionally and will make you physically tired so that you sleep better. It can also be a relief to focus on something physical.

Write about your loss in a journal. If you’ve lost a loved one, write a letter saying the things you never got to say; make a scrapbook or photo album celebrating the person’s life; or get involved in a cause or organization that was important to him or her.

Don’t expect to complete mourning on a definitive date. Give yourself time and don’t compare yourself to others and how they have coped. Grieving does not proceed in a linear fashion, it may come and go, reappear to be reworked.

Try not to tax yourself with many new responsibilities or major changes in your life during this time. Discuss them with people you trust. Delay major life changes for some time. For example, don’t rush to leave your house or start a new job. Allow yourself the time to be with your feelings without undue stress.

People often focus on all the immediate practical needs that are required after a death – such as arrangements for the funeral, dealing with a will and the estate. It is common once the funeral has passed and the sympathy cards and cups of tea have stopped coming for people to feel suddenly overwhelmed by their loss. It is at this time that you will need the emotional support of others the most. Don’t feel any sense of shame or fear about seeking this out.

Coming to terms with the loss is a gradual process and will take time. There will always be good days and bad days, some worse and some better than others. It is essential that on those good days that you don’t feel in any way that you are betraying the memory of the person you have lost. Their memory will remain there for you no matter what and, given time, thinking about them will no longer trigger sadness but will bring happy thoughts to your mind as you remember them fondly.

Bereavement is one of the hardest things we go through in life and it something that we all must endure. Never forget that you are not alone in the process of grief and everything you feel is natural and understandable. It will pass and with the help friends and loved ones you will get through it.

If you feel that you would benefit from a professional on the subject of bereavement and grief, then NUI Galway’s Chaplaincy, Student Counselling Service and Student Health Unit are available and willing to help you through.