Cornell University

Mental Health at Cornell

Resources for student & campus wellbeing

Grieving a loss

Butterfly in the grass

After a death, it may take a while to fully process what happened and how you feel. You may find you want some time alone to grieve. You may also find comfort being with others. There are many different individual, cultural, religious, and nonreligious ways to grieve or mourn. Many — like sitting shiva, holding funerals or memorials, sitting in community together, or sharing a hug and crying together — involve connecting with others. It can be helpful to process loss with others. Know that support is available, and that we can find strength and hope together.

Feelings after death

No two people respond to a loss in the same way. You and your friends or family members may experience one or more of the following feelings in the days, hours, and weeks following a 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 at the universe or the divine; 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; feeling abandoned by your God or spiritual tradition
  • 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 or your friend’s or family’s displays of grief; like you are more emotional than you should be
  • Denial: denial of either the emotions 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”

How to help yourself and others

  • Respect your feelings. Try to acknowledge and accept all of your feelings, both positive and negative. You may not feel comfortable with these feelings, but they are normal and expected.
  • Talk with 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.” Remember that you don’t have to always respond with words.
  • Create a memorial, ritual, or take another form of action. Often the act of doing something can help with processing feelings.
  • Record your thoughts. Use a journal or blog to help process; draw or play music if it helps.
  • Accept help from others. We’re all in this together, so let others’ presence, 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 community support group. 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; to keep worry and negativity in perspective. Appreciate and celebrate all that is positive in your life.
  • Spend time in nature. Experiencing the seasonal cycles reminds us that birth and death are constants in nature, and that each of us are part of the natural world.

Seek support if you...

... find that your feelings are persisting in ways that are uncomfortable and overwhelming
... find that disturbing images are intruding into your waking or dream life
... are using alcohol or other drugs, or other unhealthy coping mechanisms to handle the loss
... have reactions that are getting in the way of doing what you need to do for school, work, or relationships
... are concerned about how a friend or family member is reacting
... feel depressed or hopeless

Grief resources

Cornell resources

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