Coping With Bereavement At University Or College

A guide to coping with bereavement at university or college, with information on managing your workload & maintaining your well-being.

Last updated: 21 August 2019

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Returning to, or starting, university or college after a loved one has died can feel very daunting. If you have gone home for a while, catching up, managing your workload and coping with your loss can feel overwhelming.

Our guide to coping with bereavement at university can help you find resources and practices to support you.

Catching up

You should not worry about missed seminars, lectures or assignment deadlines. The university will have processes in place to ensure that you are not disadvantaged by this.

Meeting with your Personal Tutor or Director of Studies in your first week back is a good starting point for identifying priorities and setting up a support system.

Good points to discuss at this meeting are:

  • Procedures for completing missed or rescheduled assessments (including an action plan for what you are going to do and what they are going to do)
  • Guidance on catching up on missed work
  • Resources at the university for coping with loss and grief

Explaining the purpose of the meeting and what you need to know before you set it up is a good way to ensure that you get the most out of it.

If any inquiries you make are not responded to efficiently, or you are not satisfied with the answers, do not feel hesitant about requesting more support.

Managing your workload

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Unfortunately, you might have to accept that you will not work as well as you did before your loved one died.

  • Set small goals

Doing one core reading per week, or making one constructive comment in a seminar - and gradually increasing your goals can help you feel that you are making progress.

  • Make a study plan

Writing a timeline for when each of your assignments are due and creating a study plan for each week, or assignment, is good practice for all students and might be especially helpful if you are feeling overwhelmed. You can find free study planners online.

  • Talk to your tutors

Your tutors should empathise with your situation and help you to find ways to manage your workload.

  • Be kind to yourself

It is always easier said than done, but try not to let yourself become stressed if you are not meeting your goals.

If your feelings are distracting you from your studies, relaxation techniques, such as going for a walk, listening to music or grief meditation and mindfulness can help you focus.

Coping with loss

Even if you are managing your workload, you might find that your grief is making it difficult to control other aspects of daily life. As well as extreme sadness, you might feel anger, stress, disorientation and other symptoms of depression. You might experience difficulties sleeping, poor appetite or overeating.

This is normal and you should not feel ashamed about it, but it can make you feel even worse. Identifying the resources available to support you at your university or college as soon as possible, and what you can do yourself, can make it more manageable.

Who can help you cope with bereavement at university?

Most universities and colleges provide dedicated support systems to students who have emotional difficulties or mental health problems. These include:

University welfare support service

If your university has a welfare support service you can book standalone or regular counselling sessions with trained counsellors to help you discuss your feelings and any issues that are affecting you, such as struggles with your workload, unhealthy lifestyle patterns, anxiety or social isolation.

Peer-to-peer support groups or helplines

Student Minds is a national network of peer-support groups run by students for students, who can provide specific advice on coping with emotional difficulties at university.

If you are ever feeling very distressed many universities also provide their own volunteer-run helplines. You can also call the Samaritans on 116 123.

Residence mentors

If you are living in halls your university might provide a residence mentor programme to monitor students’ welfare. Even if they only check on you once a week you should feel free to ask them for advice on finding support services.

Bereavement support organisations and grief counsellors

There are lots of bereavement support organisations in the UK that provide free grief counselling and other resources and support for people who are bereaved.

What can you do to cope with bereavement at university?

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Everyone's grief is unique, and different things work for different people, but there are some practical ways to help you cope with grief that can make a general difference to your experience of studying at university, and being away from home, after a bereavement.

Keep in touch with your family

If one of your parents or siblings has died, your family will be especially concerned to feel connected to you while you are away from home. Setting up a regular phone call, even if you don’t feel up to it, can help you know that you are cared for if you ever feel lonely or isolated at university.

Set regular goals outside of study

Simple things, such as trying to eat healthily and doing some exercise, even just a walk on campus grounds, and relaxing with your friends can help you maintain your well-being. Trying a new sport or activity is a positive thing to do. You should not expect these things to reduce your grief, but setting up routines, and letting other people help you with them, can stop things getting out of control.

You do not have to tell anyone how you are feeling, or even that one of your loved ones has died, but letting even one or two friends know your situation can help them support you.

Don’t be afraid to say ‘no.’

Socialising can help you maintain your well-being, and there is nothing wrong with having fun after a bereavement , but don’t feel compelled to go out or do things if you would prefer not to. A quiet coffee with a few friends who know what has happened might be better for you than a toga party at this time.

It is always alright to cancel plans, but, if you feel uncertain about an event that you do want to attend, remember that you can always leave early if you feel unhappy, so it might be a good idea to go along and see how it goes.

You should always tell someone if you decide to leave a party or club early, so that your friends know what has happened to you.

If you feel that you are doing things, such as excessive drinking, that you might not have done before your loved one died, you might want to consider if this is the best thing for your well-being at this time.

Look outside the university

If your university does not offer support or activities that appeal to you remember that there might be other things available in the local community. Apart from bereavement therapy, there will usually be lots of activities and courses that you can explore during term-time.

Some organisations offer alternative grief therapies, such as art therapy.

What should you do if you can’t cope with bereavement at university?

Unfortunately, if you are struggling to cope with your loss university might not be the best place for you at this time in your life.

This is understandable and you should not feel obliged to continue on a path that it is not the right one for you. It is helpful to discuss any major changes with your family, friends and tutors, but it should be your decision.