Death affects all of us in a variety of ways, and how we cope in times in tragedy and loss is often influenced by our responsibilities or where we are at in life at the given moment.
Coping with death was especially difficult for me when I served as a Resident Advisor (RA) in a college dormitory during my senior year of undergraduate studies. I already had an emotional summer filled with loss, so I was ready to start the semester anew and make my senior year amazing. I was four and a half weeks into the semester, taking a full load of classes, just beginning my second year as an RA for first year students, and holding two other leadership positions in other organizations on campus.
It was a Saturday night when I received the shocking news of the death of a dormitory resident from the prior year. I had experienced the grief of losing several family members and peers growing up, all from various incidents and illnesses. However, this was different. A type of numbness overcame my body that day that I had not experienced before. This was someone who I interacted with on a daily basis, shared a living-community with, who I was supposed to be a resource for in times of need, and now they were just gone.
As an RA, I had been trained on an infinite number of possible situations, but nothing prepared me for this. I had so many questions with no answers. I had dozens of people reaching out asking how they could be there for me and extending their condolences, but I felt more isolated than ever. It seemed like no one understood what I was truly feeling.
I still had to turn in my class assignments, be a resource for my current residents, provide support for my residents from the previous year, and uphold my obligations to the other organizations I was involved with on campus. I did not want to let anyone down or not fulfill obligations I said I would meet, so I pushed my feelings and grief to the backburner and threw myself into anything and everything else.
I dove so deeply into everything else that eventually, my body completely shut down — I had been ignoring both my physical and mental health so much for weeks, that I ended up being diagnosed with bronchitis, strep throat on two separate occasions, and even ended up in the hospital with pneumonia, all within a two-month period of time. It took me laying on a hospital bed to realize that I have only been making this grieving process worse for myself, and I could no longer ignore the emptiness I had been feeling. I had not cried since the night I received the news nor had I let the emotions I was feeling affect me; but at that moment, I wept. Little did I know that as a flood of tears fell from my eyes, I was beginning the first steps of my healing process.
I began seeking out support from campus resources, attending talk therapy to address the survivors’ guilt and emptiness I felt, opened up to my supervisor with more than just saying “I am doing fine”, was transparent with how I was truly feeling, and started the process of rebuilding myself. This is a process that I am still navigating even years later, but one that has helped me grow as a person.
My personal experience with dealing with grief and coping after death as college student who needed to be everything for everyone else is rather unique, but we all need to learn how to cope with loss. I learned a lot about what steps to take that may be of help to others:
Process and Breathe
The initial news or shock of death may hit you immediately or weeks/months/years later. You may begin to feel overwhelmed, in denial, experience anger, or various other emotions. And it is okay to let yourself feel those emotions. It is important to take a deep breath — or multiple breaths — before you do anything else. Try to calm your mind so you can think as clearly as possible moving forward.
In the case of reacting immediately, you might want to call a close friend or someone who can positively support you through the next few hours. Once you have a clear headspace, then you can proceed.
Identify your death-related obligations.
There may be time-sensitive responsibilities that you may need to address immediately, especially if you are the estate executor, will administrator, or the liaison to a family attorney. These obligations should be addressed first.
Address employment responsibilities and academics.
It is important to notify employers and professors of your loss. Full disclosure is not necessary but be sure to provide enough information that identifies what has occurred and makes them aware of time you might need to travel to be with family and attend services. Reference your course syllabi to identify classes, assignments, or exams you will be missing, and notify professors accordingly. They can help walk you through what you need to do to make up or submit late assignments. Often professors will also extend their condolences and offer additional support to you.
Note: Many colleges have what is known as bereavement leave that can be taken when someone like a close relative or spouse passes. This is something thing that is not always necessary or applicable for every leave, but it may be helpful to consult employers and human resources departments with questions regarding this.
Take care of YOU.
This is the most important and crucial thing anyone could do when loss occurs. Self-care looks different for everyone. It also can be a process to figure out. So here are some suggestions of where to start with your self -care journey; However, I encourage you to find what works for you!
- Create a routine. This provides some structure and can help you anticipate what to expect on a day-to-day basis.
- Engage in activities or hobbies that allow you to feel happiness. Whether these are new hobbies and activities or ones you have loved for years, it can serve as an emotional outlet for you in your time of grief. Examples: journaling, dancing, singing, art, sports and exercise, etc.
- Positive environment = positive mind. Surround yourself with positive people who are a light in your life and encourage you to smile and laugh.
- Get active, eat right and drink lots of water. Engaging in physical activities beneficial to your overall health, grieving or not, but is also a great mechanism for coping with emotional pain. It is okay to treat yourself to an unhealthy snack or sweet every now and again, but make sure you are also staying hydrated and refueling your body with healthy foods.
- Recognize when you need to take steps to find additional support. Sometimes after experiencing loss, you may feel out of control, distraught, alone, isolate, or that you just do not know what to do and you need more support. Find someone whom that you can talk about loss with. This can be a friend, a mentor, teacher, or anyone you trust. You may also want to consider some of the following resources:
- Seeking talk-therapy or group therapy with a licensed professional.
- The Crisis Text Line, which serves anyone in the United States who may be experiencing a crisis. It is available at any time via text message. Text START to 741-741, and a trained crisis counselor will respond.
- Take advantage of any resources provided to students by your university regarding well-being, self-care, mental health, therapy, or anything related to psychological state of students.
- The National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) provides free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention any time day or night.
- However, if you feel like you are in immediate crisis, or a danger to yourself or those around you, call 9-1-1 immediately.
“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” – Vicki Harrison