FAU Counseling and Psychological Services

Boca Raton Campus, Rm. 229, Bld. #8, 561-297-3540

Broward Campus, Rm. SD 206, 954-236-1210

Northern Campuses, Rm, SR 110, 561-799-8678

Experiencing the death of a peer. . .

For most college students, the reality of death barely registers in the mind as a topic of concern. Why should it, when the majority of college students are young and healthy, and many feel invincible, if not immortal?  Given this mindset, it’s not surprising that when you learn a fellow student, friend, or loved one has died, your brain may not be ready or able to absorb the fact without some help.

Any death is hard. Yet the loss of a young person can be especially difficult to process. And if the cause of death is not something we can readily understand (like an illness), but rather a violent or sudden act like an accident or a suicide, the grief and confusion multiply further.

Unnatural and untimely deaths often elicit a series of difficult questions. (Why him? Why not me? Is there anything I could have done to prevent it?) It can be helpful to process these questions with others. Know that support is available and we can find strength and hope together.

After losing someone it may feel like the feelings will never let up.  But accepting the multiple feelings that may arise is part of the grieving process and will allow you to heal from the loss.

What is grief?

Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s the emotional suffering you feel when someone (or something) you love or deeply care about is taken away.  How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, your faith, and the nature of the loss. The grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried – and there is no “right way” and no “normal” timetable for responding to a loss.Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.

Feelings after a death

No two people respond to the same loss in the same way. You and your friends may experience one or more of the following in the days, hours, and weeks following the death:

  • Anxiety or fear: that something similar could happen to you, or to another friend or loved one.
  • Confusion: about why the event happened, or what it means in the larger context of life.
  • Grief: a pure, overwhelming sense of sadness or loss.
  • Anger: anger at the person for dying; anger at whatever or whomever caused the death; anger or increased irritability in routine situations.
  • Abandonment: feeling that you have been left by the person, particularly if there was no opportunity to say good-bye.
  • Frustration: that you couldn't’ prevent the death from happening, or that the death happened at all.
  • Guilt or remorse: guilt if you feel you could have done something to prevent the death, or even guilt related to feeling good (even momentarily) if you think you are supposed to continually feel bad.
  • Embarrassment: feeling uncomfortable with your own display of grief; feeling uncomfortable with your friend’s and family’s displays of grief; feeling like you are more emotional than you should be.
  • Denial: denial of either the feelings about your loss or about the loss itself.
  • Numbness: a “lack of feeling” is a normal reaction to an immediate loss and should not be confused with “lack of caring”.
  • Physical symptoms:  fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity, weight loss or gain, ache and pains, insomnia.

When someone dies, your sense of innocence and immortality dies a bit more too. Your life may feel different than it did before the death. It may take you a while to fully process what happened.

Help Yourself

  • Respect  your feelings and don’t let anyone tell you how to feel. Try to acknowledge and accept all of your emotions, both positive and negative. You may not feel comfortable with these feelings, but they are normal and expected.
  • Look after your physical health. The mind and body are connected. When you feel good physically, you’ll also feel better emotionally. Combat stress and fatigue by getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising. Don’t use alcohol or drugs to numb the pain of grief or lift your mood artificially.
  • Plan ahead for grief “triggers”. Anniversaries, holidays, and milestones can reawaken memories and feelings. Be prepared for an emotional wallop, and know that it’s completely normal.
  • Talk to others. Telling the story of the loss can help some people. Others might not want to talk about it, but will find comfort and security by simply spending time with someone who “gets it.”
  • Listen to others. Remember that you don’t have to always respond with words.
  • Express your feelings and thoughts in a tangible or creative way. Write about your loss in a journal or blog. Draw or play music if that helps. Writing a letter saying the things you never got to say; make a scrapbook or photo album celebrating the person’s life; or getting involved in a cause or organization that was important to him or her all can be helpful.
  • Accept help from others. We’re all in this together, so let others’ experience and wisdom guide you if you feel stuck or scared.
  • Allow yourself to cry. Tears serve a dual purpose; they offer emotional and physical release.
  • Attend a support group at FAU or in the community. Groups provide an opportunity to share grief with others who have experienced similar loss.
  • Celebrate and honor life. Death often serves to remind the living of what is truly important in life. It reminds us to keep worry and negativity in perspective. Appreciate and celebrate all that is positive in your life.

Seek support

  • If you find that your feelings are persisting in ways that are uncomfortable to you.
  • If disturbing images are intruding into your waking or dreaming life.
  • If your use of alcohol or other drugs, or other unhealthy coping mechanisms has increased since the loss.
  • If your reactions are getting in the way of doing what you need to do for school or in relationships.
  • If you are concerned about how a friend is reacting.
  • If you are feeling depressed and hopeless.

Please reach out to FAU Counseling and Psychological Services for free confidential professional counseling.  We are available to all enrolled students.  www.fau.edu/counseling

Help a friend

  • Be supportive. Talk openly and honestly about the situation. Use an appropriate, caring conversational tone of voice. Listen attentively and show interest in others’ feelings and beliefs.
  • Encourage professional help if symptoms of depression are severe or persistent and it appears your friend/peer is not coping with day to day activities.

Adapted with gratitude from: http://mitalk.org/grief_loss.php, Cornell University-Gannett Health Services, and www.helpguide.org/mental/grief_loss.htm

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 Last Modified 3/26/15