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November 2022 update: An outline of our team's November 14, 2022 presentation on grief for UVA faculty is available here

Questions about life’s meaning are at the heart of grief after a death. We grieve because we love, and we are alive, and loving connection gives life meaning. Grief is a normal response to loss, not an illness, even though it can feel like one. Not everyone has the same reactions, on the same schedule. There is no one way to grieve.

When you are grieving, it is common to feel:

  • Body aches and fatigue
  • Preoccupation with the person/animal/relationship that has been lost
  • Guilt, anxiety, and/or anger 
  • Helplessness, shock
  • Sadness
  • Difficulty focusing, making decisions, sleeping, and otherwise functioning
  • Intermittent numbness and intense feelings

These reactions can come and go, and often come up again around anniversaries of a death or other loss.  

All cultures have grief rituals and ways of coping that allow us to come to terms with loss, especially death. A ritual is defined as an intentional practice that helps a person or community understand and complete the story of a loss. It does not mean you forget or “move on” –rather, you make sense of it in a way that honors the relationship to the one lost, while also allowing you to live in the present. 

Here are some ideas that many people find helpful:

  • Seek out support. Being able to talk about it with someone eases the sense of unreality that comes with a death. Choose someone who listens without trying to fix what you are feeling; counseling is an option if your regular social support is not able to do that.
  • Express it -write, paint, draw, collage, make a music mix. Explicitly expressing the feelings that come up can ease their intensity, and also make them easier to understand.
  • Make a chronology or list of the losses associated with the death. Too often, we are unaware of the layers of our loss. Listing them out gives witness to them. Some of these layers of feeling may be less socially acceptable in our culture, but they are no less legitimate and they need to be acknowledged. In addition to sadness, feelings of anger, self-blame, abandonment, fear, and even, relief, sometimes come up.
  • Make a plan for self-care. Accept help if you need it, especially around getting food, social support, academic accommodations or other needs met. 
  • Avoid making major decisions right after a loss. Preoccupation and poor sleep interfere with normal decision making ability; give yourself some time to process your loss before you take on a new direction.
  • Take a break from news and social media if it is overly activating your feelings of anger, anxiety and distress.
  • Make meaning. The questions of “Why?” and “What does this mean for my life?” come up with every major loss. Many people make meaning first with private expression, then with action that helps give voice to their loved one’s life –whether through a memorial, an activity like a campaign to make a change or bring awareness to an issue, or a religious or spiritual practice. All of these things help us “story” what has happened, and that is critical to being able to make a space in your life for the one who has died, while also allowing your own story to continue. Rituals and other activities can be private or public – both are powerful.
  • If you are continuing to have trouble, seek help. Sometimes our grief is so intense that it can make it very hard to live in the present. If, after a period of time, you find yourself unable to engage fully in your life, to feel positive feelings, and to think hopefully about the present and future, consider counseling or a grief group. Some losses create trauma and exacerbate existing mental health issues, and can complicate grief to the point that school and work become overwhelming. CAPS, the UVA Women’s Center and other resources on Grounds and in the community are here to help. 
  • What to say to someone dealing with grief. Grief can be challenging sometimes because it brings up our own fear of mortality.  If you want to help someone with grief, the best thing to do is to listen, without trying to fix, and to offer your presence. “I’m here and want to listen, if you would like to talk” is a powerful gift to a person who feels alone in their loss.
  • What not to say. Expressing your opinions, such as “You’ll feel better soon,” “They wouldn’t want you to grieve” or “She’s in a better place now” is generally not helpful, and indirectly it can imply that you are asking the person grieving to stop feeling what they are feeling (sad, alone, confused, and angry at the loss). If you instead reflect the other person’s feelings, and also, share your own, you provide empathy –and that is far more powerful than anything else you can offer. 

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”  Simone Weil