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What is grief?
What can you do to help you through?

This leaflet is to help you understand feelings you may have after experiencing loss.   Understanding what is happening to you emotionally may help you cope with and understand your feelings.

We most commonly speak of loss and grief when someone we love dies.   Similar feelings can, however, be experienced following other losses and separation, such as loss of or break up of a relationship with someone with whom we have been very close, boyfriend, girlfriend or perhaps a parent or siblings through divorce.   In these cases we might feel that the person who is leaving had a choice and that they chose to leave us, leaving us feeling abandoned and uncared for.   The termination of a pregnancy, whilst at the time you may experience feelings of relief, can later lead to feelings of guilt, shame and a great sense of loss. This may be complicated by the fact that you made the decision to end the pregnancy, and the fact that many of your friends and family have very different views on the moral issues around abortion, resulting in you feeling further isolated and confused.   Other areas of loss may be separation from family and friends, loss of health, loss of status and the loss of a pet or a treasured possession.

What is grief?

Grief is a normal response to loss.   The sense of helplessness and hopelessness is present to some degree in everyone who has suffered a loss from whatever source.   How you may express your grief may vary in relation to your culture or religion with varying traditions and values.   The marking of loss is part of the healing process and helps us to adjust to life.

The process, from initial shock and distress to acceptance and eventual healing, happens over time and depends on individual circumstances and sometimes the space and opportunity to grieve appropriately.   The process can be influenced by past experiences of loss and the social and psychological supports that are available to you.   The grieving period varies and can last for week or two, several months or, on occasion, years.   If the loss is sudden and traumatic, such as accidental death or suicide, the grief reaction can be particularly acute.


The way you react to loss as stated previously will depend on past experiences, the supports you have and, in some cases, the "space" you have in which to grieve.   Sometimes the demands on us are such that it makes it impossible to grieve at that time and it is possible for the grieving process to be delayed until a later date when another incident of loss or a related situation triggers off the feelings of grief which may be compounded by the present loss.   These feelings may be of shock, disbelief, denial or feeling numb and detached.   The way you function may also be affected.   You may try to behave as normal, getting on with your normal routine or withdraw from communication with others.   These reactions may be the way in which you protect yourself so that you are not overcome by your feelings.   It is important, however, that you try not to deny your feelings and try to recognise that these feelings are a natural part of the grieving process.   Later you may become more fully aware of your loss and, for some, this can be the most difficult part of the grieving process.   At this time, you may experience some of the following symptoms:

  • loss of sleep (or sleep more)
  • loss of appetite (or eat more)
  • anxiety
  • frequent periods of crying
  • feelings of sadness and hurt  
  • if your loss is through death, you may sometimes "see" or "hear" the dead person  
  • you might be disorganised, unable to make plans and be forgetful
  • you might have poor concentration

All this will affect your ability to work or study effectively - if at all.   Your energy levels will be low and you will be prone to minor illnesses such as coughs and colds.

It is difficult to set a time on the grieving process.   However, in time, the feelings reduce in frequency but may recur at times such as anniversaries of special events, or even a memory of something you have shared with the person you have lost, when you may again suffer symptoms of the grieving process.

Over time, however, you will begin to recover from your grief and an emotional balance will return to your life when you will be able to "accept" your loss, looking forward to life without the significant person.   This, however, takes time and the pain of the grieving process cannot be quickly resolved and takes a great deal of emotional energy, meaning that being "able to cope" can fluctuate and at times leave you confused, emotionally and physically drained, and having difficulty in coping with everyday life.

What can you do to help you through?

  • Do accept that the feelings you have are OK and a necessary part of the healing process.
  • Do allow yourself to cry, to talk about the person you have lost even if it is difficult and painful.   Share your feelings with a friend.   Visit the places you used to go to with the dead person.   Remember that your memories of your time together stay with you.
  • Do take some time off your studies or work.   Go home or stay with friends for a few days.
  • Do take plenty of rest, eat light, frequent meals, and make time for relaxation and a little exercise.   Be nice to yourself.
  • Do not try to compensate for poor concentration and lack of motivation by overworking.   The time will be unproductive.   Little and often will achieve more.
  • Do talk things over with your adviser of studies, supervisor or work colleagues so that they are aware of the situation.
  • Do try not to take alcohol, tranquillisers, sleeping pills or other drugs to lessen the painful feelings (unless prescribed by a doctor).
  • Do seek help if you feel that you are having difficulty coping with the very powerful emotions, if you think that these feelings are lasting too long, or if they are seriously affecting your health or your work.   If you are having thoughts about self-harm, talk to someone about this.   Seek help early rather than wait and hope things will get better.
  • Do remember there is no right or wrong way to grieve, only the way that is right for you.

For more help and information about this or about anything else, why not speak to Student Services?  Email

Student Services



Advice and Support Centre
79 North Street
St Andrews
KY16 9AL
Scotland, United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)1334 46 2020

Open Monday to Friday
9:30am to 4:30pm