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Mental Health

Screaming, Crying, Throwing Up: Processing Grief in College

We’ve all been there. That One Thing that you never thought would happen, happened. Now you’re on a higher dose of antidepressants, you can’t remember the last time you drank water, and you can’t remember a single thing clearly from the last three months. Oh, and you have an assignment due at 11:59 p.m. And an exam tomorrow. And work at 8 a.m. (And maybe even an HC article due at midnight).

Okay, maybe we haven’t all been there, but the fact is that many of us have been. In fact, studies have shown that around 20-33% of undergraduates are grieving at any given timethat’s a lot of grief. Maybe you’re in the same boat right now. It doesn’t matter what happened; according to the NIH National Cancer Institute, grief is, “the normal response to a major loss.” College is an especially difficult time to navigate grief — it feels like the whole world stopped. With classes, work, sports, clubs, and more, every day is a reminder that it did in fact keep going, and keeping up with it can feel like a major burden.

There’s no quick fix for grief and there’s definitely no one activity or tip that will cure it completely, but there are some ways to manage it. Here are some of the things that have helped me, in no particular order:

Journaling

Journaling is probably the first thing that any therapist, counselor, or social worker will recommend to you after a loss. But it’s easier said than done, especially after a traumatic event. I’ve always loved writing, and it’s always come relatively easy to me, even if what I was writing wasn’t that great. But after “That One Thing” happened, I found that I couldn’t write a single word. If you’re feeling the same type of writer’s block that I felt, it’s still a good idea to push through, even if you think what you’re writing is terrible or pointless. Writing in a journal is proven to help manage anxiety, depression, and stress, especially when combined with other self-care practices.

GO OUTSIDE

The grief-college combo meal is hard enough as it is, but when you add in the fact that fall semester weather gets gloomy and dark fast, especially in the Northeast, it’s especially terrible. That’s why it’s so important to get outside as much as you can. Even if it’s for just a few minutes, spending just half an hour outside every day (not just when walking to class!) has helped me so much. Studies show that sun exposure helps with the symptoms of both stress and depression, and leads to an increase in serotonin levels. If it’s too cold to go outside, even just opening your blinds and letting the sunlight into your room is a practical alternative with similar mood-boosting effects.

GET Enough Sleep

This is probably the most important — and the hardest — item on the list. Many of us know how difficult it can be to get a full eight hours of sleep in college. According to the Sleep Foundation, people who suffer from grief and complicated grief are more likely to take longer to fall asleep and suffer from conditions like insomnia. Furthermore, sleep and grief may have a “bidirectional relationship,” meaning that grief makes sleep worse and lack of sleep makes grief worse. What does this mean for college students, most of whom are already exhausted? It means that prioritizing sleep is more important than ever before. For me, this means avoiding my phone an hour before bed, avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and evening, and putting my mental health and sleep schedule before my grades and perfectionist tendencies. As a lifelong perfectionist, that last step was a tough pill to swallow. Does that mean skipping all your classes to sleep in? Absolutely not—get that degree! But for me, it means asking professors for extensions on assignments as needed and realizing that some assignments need to just be completed, not completed perfectly.

Slumber Cloud

Talk About It!

Grief can make us feel isolated, which means it’s especially important to reach out to your support system. Processing grief is hard enough as it is, so leaning on others when you’re feeling low is a vital way to survive and thrive in college after a loss. Your school’s counseling center can also be a great resource — many schools like UMass offer therapy and counseling groups surrounding grief and loss, and while they may not be perfect, they can be helpful as a blueprint for talking about difficult subjects.

Grieving is never fun, and it can feel especially overwhelming and isolating in college. It’s important to know that there are resources available and that you’re definitely not the only one experiencing it. Hopefully, these tips will help you feel better and a little more in control of your grieving process.

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Katherine Kelly-Coviello

U Mass Amherst '23

Katherine is a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying Communication. She is a content writer and editor for HC UMass! In her free time, she loves gardening and reading, and she plans to work in social media marketing after she graduates.
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