Loyola University Maryland

Counseling Center

General Information on Illness and Loss

Loss is an inevitable part of life, and grief is a natural part of the healing process. The reasons for grief are many, such as the loss of a loved one, the loss of health, or the letting go of a long-held dream. Dealing with a significant loss can be one of the most difficult times in a person's life. 

For information about coping with grief and loss and the supportive campus resources available, please view the following video: Coping with Loss

Read on for information about:

Different Kinds of Losses

Feelings of loss are very personal and only you know what is significant to you. People commonly associate certain losses with strong feelings of grief. These can include:

  • Death of a parent, sibling, or other close relative;
  • Death of a friend;
  • Death of a partner;
  • Serious illness in a loved one;
  • Relationship break-up and/or; 
  • Loss of a close friendship

Subtle or less obvious losses can also cause strong feelings of grief, even though those around you may not know the extent of your feelings. Some examples include:

  • Loss of health through illness;
  • Death of a pet;
  • Move to a new home;
  • Loss of a physical ability;
  • Leaving home;
  • Loss of mental ability;
  • Change of job;
  • Graduation from school and/or; 
  • Loss of financial security

Sudden vs. Predictable Loss

Sudden or shocking losses--due to events like crimes, accidents, or suicide--can be traumatic. There is no way to prepare. They can challenge your sense of security and confidence in the predictability of life. You may experience symptoms such as sleep disturbance, nightmares, distressing thoughts, social isolation, or severe anxiety.

Predictable losses--like those due to terminal illness--sometimes allow more time to prepare for the loss. However, they create two layers of grief: the grief related to the anticipation of the loss and the grief related to the final loss.

How Long Does Grief Last?

The length of the grief process is different for everyone. There is no predictable schedule for grief. Although it can be quite painful at times, the grief process cannot be rushed. It is important to be patient with yourself as you experience the feelings and your unique reactions to the loss. With time and support, things generally do get better. However, it is normal for significant dates, holidays, or other reminders to trigger feelings related to the loss. Taking care of yourself, seeking support, and acknowledging your feelings during these times are ways that can help you cope.

Normal Grief Reactions

When experiencing grief, it is common to feel…

  • Frustrated or misunderstood;
  • Irritable or angry (at the deceased, oneself, others, higher powers);
  • Guilty;
  • Homesick;
  • Isolated –or, that you need more time alone;
  • Anxious, stressed, unable to concentrate;
  • Ambivalent and/or;
  • Numb or without feelings

Grief as a Process of Healing

Several authors have described typical stages or needs that the grieving person experiences. For example, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross suggested that grief involves stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Alan Wolfelt described "mourning needs," which include acknowledging the reality of the death, embracing the pain of the loss, remembering the person who died, developing a new self-identity, searching for meaning, and receiving ongoing support from others.

It is important to note that the grief process is not linear, but is more often experienced in cycles. Grief is sometimes compared to climbing a spiral staircase where things can look and feel like you are just going in circles, yet you are actually making progress. Patience with the process and allowing feelings to come without judgment can help. If you feel stuck in your grief, talking to a counselor or a supportive person may help you move forward in the healing process.

Culture, Rituals, and Ceremonies

Your cultural background can affect how you understand and approach the grief process. Some cultures anticipate a "time to grieve" and have developed rituals to help people through the grief process. Support from others can be a reminder that grief is a universal experience and that you are not alone. After a significant loss, some cultures have mourning rituals to mark the passage of time and help individuals reconnect with their ordinary lives.

A mourning ritual can occur during a meaningful time, like an anniversary, wake, or holiday, or at a distinct location, like a church, synagogue, or home. In North American cultures, for example, there are the Catholic anniversary mass, the reciting of Kaddish, and El Día de los Muertos. Many ceremonies have spontaneously grown up around the Vietnam War Memorial, and a special mourning project, the AIDS Quilt, traveled throughout the nation to enable mourners to participate in this expression of grief. Grief rituals and ceremonies acknowledge the pain of loss while also offering social support and a reaffirmation of life.

You may not be conscious of how your own cultural background affects your grief process. Talking with family, friends or clergy is one way to strengthen your awareness of possible cultural influences in your life. Friends and family may be able to help you generate ideas to create your own rituals. Some have found solace in creating their own rituals, such as a ceremony with friends, or writing a letter to the deceased.

How can you Cope With Grief?

  • Talk to family or friends;
  • Seek counseling;
  • Read poetry or books;
  • Engage in social activities;
  • Write in a journal;
  • Eat good foods;
  • Exercise;
  • Take time to relax;
  • Seek spiritual support;
  • Listen to music;
  • Join a support group;
  • Let yourself feel grief and; 
  • Be patient with yourself

Each one of us has an individual style of coping with painful times. The list above may help you generate ideas about how to manage your feelings of grief. You may want to experiment with these ideas or create a list of your own. Talking to friends who have dealt with loss in the past can help you generate new ways of coping. Only you know what coping skills will fit best with your personality and lifestyle.

One way to examine your own style of coping is to recall the ways you've dealt with painful times in the past. It's important to note that some ways of coping with grief are helpful, like talking to others, writing in a journal, and so forth. Others may be hurtful or destructive to the healing process, like substance abuse or isolation. Healthy coping skills are important in resolving a loss. They cannot take away your feelings of loss. They can, however, help you move forward in the healing process.

How can you Support Others who are Grieving?

  • Be a good listener;
  • Ask about their feelings;
  • Just sit with them;
  • Share your feelings;
  • Ask about their loss;
  • Remember the loss;
  • Make telephone calls;
  • Acknowledge the pain;
  • Let them feel sad;
  • Be available when you can;
  • Do not minimize grief and;
  • Talk about your own losses

People who are grieving often feel isolated or lonely in their grief. Soon after the loss, social activities and support from others may decrease. As the shock of the loss fades, there is a tendency on the part of the griever to feel more pain and sadness. Well-meaning friends may avoid discussing the subject due to their own discomfort with grief or their fear of "making the person feel bad." They may "not know what to say."

People who are grieving are likely to fluctuate between wanting some time to themselves and wanting closeness with others. They may want someone to talk to about their feelings. Showing concern and thoughtfulness about a friend shows that you care. It's better to feel nervous and awkward sitting with a grieving friend than to not sit there at all.

To One In Sorrow

Let me come in where you are weeping, friend,
And let me take your hand.
I, who have known a sorrow such as yours, can understand.
Let me come in--I would be very still beside you in your grief;
I would not bid you cease your weeping, friend,
Tears bring relief. Let me come in--and hold your hand,
For I have known a sorrow such as yours, And understand.

-Grace Noll Crowell

Where can you Find Support?

It is often helpful to talk about the loss. If you need help with this process, the Loyola Counseling Center offers individual counseling and a weekly bereavement support group for students. We’re in Humanities 150 (one flight up the turret, near the big curving bench). Counseling services are free and confidential. Call 410-617-CARE (2273) for information and to make an appointment.

Readings on Grief and Loss

  • Colgrove, M., Bloomfield, H. & McWilliams, P. (1976). How to survive the loss of a love. New York: Bantam.
  • Kelley, P. (1997). Companion to grief. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Kopp, R. & Sorenson, S. (1985). When someone you love is dying. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Kushner, Harold (1981). When bad things happen to good people. New York: Schocken Books.
  • LeShan, Eda. (1988). Learning to say good-bye: When a parent dies. New York: Avon.
  • Levang, E. & Ilse, S. (1992). Remembering with love: Messages of hope for the first year of grieving and beyond. Minneapolis, MN: Deaconess Press.
  • Neeld, E. (1992). Seven Choices: Taking the steps to a new life after losing someone you love. New York: Delacorte.
  • Rando, Therese (1991). How to go on living when someone you love dies. New York: Bantam.
  • Staudacher, C. (1987). Beyond grief: A guide for recovering from the death of a loved one. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  • Viorst, Judith (1986). Necessary losses. New York: Fawcett Gold Medal.
  • Wolfelt, Alan (1992). Understanding Grief: Helping yourself heal. Muncie, IN: Accelerated Development.
  • Wolfelt, Alan (1997). The Journey through grief. Ft. Collins, CO: Companion Press.