Student Health And Counseling Services

Topic - Understanding Grief

What is Grief?

Grief occurs in response to the loss of someone or something. The loss may involve a loved one, a job, or possibly a role (student entering the workplace or employee entering retirement). Anyone can experience grief and loss. It can be sudden or expected; however, individuals are unique in how they experience this event. Grief, itself, is a normal and natural response to loss. There are a variety of ways that individuals respond to loss. Some are healthy coping mechanisms and some may hinder the grieving process. It is important to realize that acknowledging the grief promotes the healing process. Time and support facilitate the grieving process, allowing an opportunity to appropriately mourn this loss.


Common Reactions to Loss:

Individuals experiencing grief from a loss may choose a variety of ways of expressing it. No two people will respond to the same loss in the same way. It is important to note that phases of grief exist; however, they do not depict a specific way to respond to loss. Rather, stages of grief reflect a variety of reactions that may surface as an individual makes sense of how this loss affects them. Experiencing and accepting all feelings remains an important part of the healing process.

Denial, numbness, and shock

  • This serves to protect the individual from experiencing the intensity of the loss.
  • Numbness is a normal reaction to an immediate loss and should not be confused with "lack of caring".
  • Denial and disbelief will diminish as the individual slowly acknowledges the impact of this loss and accompanying feelings.


  • This reaction usually occurs when an individual feels helpless and powerless.
  • Anger may result from feeling abandoned, occurring in cases of loss through death.
  • Feelings of resentment may occur toward one’s higher power or toward life in general for the injustice of this loss.
  • After an individual acknowledges anger, guilt may surface due to expressing these negative feelings.
  • Again, these feelings are natural and should be honored to resolve the grief.


  • At times, individuals may ruminate about what could have been done to prevent the loss.
  • Individuals can become preoccupied about ways that things could have been better, imagining all the things that will never be.
  • This reaction can provide insight into the impact of the loss; however, if not properly resolved, intense feelings of remorse or guilt may hinder the healing process.


  • After recognizing the true extent of the loss, some individuals may experience depressive symptoms.
  • Sleep and appetite disturbance, lack of energy and concentration, and crying spells are some typical symptoms.
  • Feelings of loneliness, emptiness, isolation, and self-pity can also surface during this phase, contributing to this reactive depression.
  • For many, this phase must be experienced in order to begin reorganizing one’s life.


  • Time allows the individual an opportunity to resolve the range of feelings that surface.
  • The grieving process supports the individual. That is, healing occurs when the loss becomes integrated into the individual’s set of life experiences.
  • Individuals may return to some of the earlier feelings throughout one’s lifetime.
  • There is no time limit to the grieving process. Each individual should define one’s own healing process.


Factors that may hinder the healing process

  • Avoiding your emotions
  • Over-activity to the point of exhaustion
  • Using alcohol or other drugs to mask the grief
  • Unrealistic promises made to the deceased
  • Unresolved grief from a previous loss
  • Judgmental relationships
  • Acting resentful to those who try to help


Guidelines that may help resolve grief

Seldom does a person go into one side of grief and come out the other side the same as before the loss. Think of going through your grief, rather than getting over the loss. By seeing the process through, you can develop personal strengths to cope with other types of loss and difficulties that may come up later in life. Acceptance of the loss means gaining a perspective - a new sense of self and what you can do with you life. You may find the following helpful:

  • Give yourself some quiet time alone to think about moving toward a new equilibrium - a transition from who you were before the loss to who you will be after the grieving process.
  • Be as open as you can be in expressing your feelings; cry if you need to. Express any anger or sense of unfairness if you feel it.
  • Play out in your mind the unfinished business in the relationship and try to come to a resolution; say good-bye.
  • Tell someone you trust the story of your loss.
  • Try to focus on what you were able to do for the deceased, instead of what you "should have done" or could have done.
  • Use a journal to document the healing process.
  • Bereavement groups provide an opportunity to share grief with others who have experienced similar loss.
  • If the healing process becomes too overwhelming, seek professional help.


Seeking Professional Help

Grieving, as natural and healthy as it is, can also be a painful and frightening thing to go through. If you'd like to talk to someone about anything you've read here, or anything that the reading this might have stirred up for you, please contact Counseling Services at 715-425-3884.


Being Helpful To Others

Social support for the bereaved is most important. Others can provide a patient presence to allow the bereaved an opportunity to tell the story of the loss and to share how he or she is feeling. Remember that it is up to the individual to get through the grieving process; others can only provide support. If you are concerned for someone who appears to be having a difficult time managing alone, you may want to suggest seeking professional assistance.


Recommended Reading

Death, The Final Stage of Growth. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1975 Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth

On Death and Dying. New York: MacMillan, 1969 Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth

When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Schocken Books, 1981Kushner, H.S.


Courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Counseling Center


These links may also be helpful

Coping with Tragedy, Trauma, and Death

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler: Help with grief process Coping with grief and loss


Page updated Spring 2020 by Kaleah Bautch, MS, LPC - Personal Counselor in Student Health and Counseling at University of Wisconsin – River Falls

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