Coping with Grief as a Graduate Student

By Isabelle Woodward

Grief is defined as the anguish an individual experiences at the loss of a loved one, but it can also occur after a serious illness, divorce, or any other significant losses (Healthdirect, 2022). The effects of grief can be complex, which can affect everyone differently and result in both physical and emotional symptoms (Bonanno & Kaltman, 2001). At any point of someone’s life, the experience of grief can be hard to endure, but certain events in life may make it especially hard (e.g., being a graduate student).

On the evening of January 8, 2024, the first day of the Winter semester at Carleton University, my dad collapsed and passed away after almost a four-year battle with cancer. Losing my father, especially being as close to him as I was, was the hardest thing I had to go through. Not only did I have to grieve his loss, I was in my second semester of my master’s program, and I had to make sure I did not fall too far behind on my school work.

Recently, I started to wonder, “Is anyone else going through this?” To my surprise, I was not alone by a long shot and there were many people in the world who are grieving while attending graduate school. I am a first-year master’s student, and I am still trying to figure out how to be in graduate school while grieving, but I hope to help others going through a difficult time and let them know that they are not alone. To this end, I will share my experience with grief and tips on how others can cope with this experience. I will provide both strategies that I have learned as well as evidence-based strategies to cope and succeed in our studies. What I write is a very personal experience and I want to preface this by saying that everyone grieves differently, and some strategies may work better for others.

1. Don’t be afraid to let your professors and supervisor know. The morning after my father passed away, I was supposed to attend the first statistics class of the semester. Luckily, I had the same professor the semester prior, so I knew what kind of professor they were. Knowing that they would be supportive, I informed them of my dad’s passing and that I would not make it to class. However, I was worried that I would not receive the same response from my other professors and my supervisor. I was worried that they would try to encourage me to continue with my courses and maybe even encourage me to drop out as it might be ‘too much.’ I was completely wrong; all my professors met me with so much support and understanding. This is all to say that I understand being worried of letting professors and your supervisor be aware of your situation, whether if its due to their potential unsupportive response or their pity. However, they understand that this is an unexpected and difficult situation, and you need time to process it before returning. In my experience, graduate school faculty are there to support you and they want you to succeed.

2. Lean on your support system. During the first week of my dad’s passing, I was so grateful to have the support system that I had with my friends and my partner. They cared for me when I cried, tended to my responsibilities when I did not have the energy to do so, and listened when I needed to talk. Simply knowing that people are there to support you and care for you in your time of need is so important when coping with grief. Not only do I know this personally, but it has also been shown in research. Specifically, research has shown that when one has high levels of social support, those who are grieving are less likely to experience depression (Chen, 2022). In other words, when a grieving individual feels that they have support from family, friends, and neighbours—despite the worsening of grief—they were less likely to experience depressive symptoms. Even though it might feel as though you do not want to burden those around you, it is important to have a strong support system and being able to lean on them makes the grieving process a little bit easier. Simply, don’t be afraid to ask for help. During this difficult time, it’s important to depend and lean on those around you.

3. Know when you need to take time for yourself. The amount of time someone takes off from school or work after losing a loved one is different for everyone. I started working on course work only one week after my dad passed, and I returned to class ten days after his passing. At that time, my mental energy returned, and I could no longer sit around my apartment doing nothing. I had to put my mind to work. However, I returned very slowly and only did as much as my brain allowed. In simple words, I did not return to ‘full school mode.’ As mentioned, this was my own experience, and others may need more or less time before returning to classes. Referring to my first point, it was important for me to let my professors know of my dad’s passing since it allowed them to understand why I was not participating as much in class discussions or why I would need extra time on assignments. It also permitted me to have the comfort of knowing that they support my decisions.

After returning to school, I assumed I was ‘good to go’ and I did not think my grief would affect my emotions as severely as it did during the first week of losing my dad. However, there were times when my grief would return, making my emotions too much to handle while I was on campus, and I did not understand why this was happening. I learned that grief comes in waves and, even if I believed I coped with it enough, I will still have hard days where I need to take it slow. Understandably, this is really hard to do as a graduate student since you are supposed to conduct research as well as doing coursework in addition to being a teaching assistant. However, we have to remind ourselves that our circumstance is different and that we need to listen to our bodies and our minds. If you need to take a break, take a break. If your mental capacity has been reached for the day, you’re done with school for the day. By continuing to push myself, it would make it worse which would lead to extreme feelings of being overwhelmed. This moves into my next point…

4. Learn grounding strategies for when you feel overwhelmed. As I was just mentioning, there were days where I pushed myself too hard and exceeded my mental capacity. This would sometimes lead to anxiety attacks. Shuchter and Zisook (1993) found that two months after the loss of their loved one, one in five participants in their sample had difficulties with concentration and decision-making. As a graduate student, having trouble concentrating can make it very difficult to work on day-to-day assignments and projects. Much more research has shown that grief can have a severe effect on our minds, such as a creating sense of disrupted future, elicit dysphoria, and can result in the experience of mental illnesses, such as major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder (Bonanno & Kaltman, 2001). More recently, in a sample of grieving individuals, Bui and colleagues (2015) found that 39.7% of their sample reported having at least one grief-related panic attack within the last week. Therefore, it is unfair to ourselves to assume we will be able to function at the same level pre-loss and it is normal to feel overwhelmed while grieving.

A practice to help pull you away from negative or challenging emotions is called grounding. Some grounding techniques include putting your hands in cold water, taking a short walk, doing the 5-4-3-2-1 method (five things you hear, four things you see, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste), and breathing deeply (Raypole, 2024). Grounding works differently for everyone, so you may have to try different things until one works. The practice of grounding is meant to calm your nervous system down and to bring you back down to earth. Feeling overwhelmed is common when you are grieving, and these grounding strategies may be helpful to cope with those extreme emotions.

5. Don’t compare yourself to others. As I mentioned a couple of times, it is not fair to yourself to have high expectations of your capabilities while you are grieving. As a graduate student, it can be hard to watch your classmates succeed, whether it is presenting at a conference, receiving a scholarship, or publishing research. When your grieving, these feelings might be even more enhanced as you are already emotional. A week before my dad’s passing, I was finally starting to do research and was working on my literature review. However, I put it down for about a month after my dad passed because I could not concentrate long enough to write anything. It was really hard for me to see students around me discussing the research they were working on because I felt as though I was behind. As I mentioned before, I had to remind myself that my circumstance is different, and it will take time before I can go back to full graduate research mode. I know this may be hard to read, especially if you are a high-achiever, but you need to allow yourself time to cope. If you keep pushing to succeed, you won’t allow yourself to fully recover, which may even delay your return. Of course, this is easier said than done. I still catch myself comparing myself to others and feeling as though I am falling behind. Try to focus on yourself first and allow time to heal, because comparing yourself to others is just not fair to you.

Now that you’ve read all of these tips on coping and managing your grief as a graduate student, its important to remember that everybody grieves differently. These strategies may work for me, but they may not work for others. The purpose of this article is to show grieving students that they are not alone and that there is a way to succeed in graduate school while grieving. Other important reminders are to listen to your mind and body, do not compare yourself to others, and lean on your support system. I hope these tips and my experience can help normalize what others may be going through and to provide a safe space to share their own experiences. For more information and tips on grieving while being a graduate student, please read “Healing from Loss: A Grad Student’s Guide to Coping with Brief” by Taylor Cromwell.


Bonanno, G.A. & Kaltman, S. (2001). The varieties of grief experience. Clinical Psychology Review, 21(5), 705-734.

Bui, E., Horenstein, A., Shah, R., Skritskaya, N.A., Mauro, C., Wang, Y., Duan, N., Reynolds, C.F., Zisook, S., Shear, M.K., & Simon, N.M. (2015). Grief-related panic symptoms in Complicated Grief. Journal of Affective Disorders, 170(1), 215-216.

Chen, R. (2022). Social support as a protective factor against the effect of grief reactions on depression for bereaved single older adults. Death Studies, 46(3), 756-763.

HealthDirect. (2022, April). Grief and Loss.

Raypole, C. (2024, January 29). 30 Grounding Techniques to Quiet Distressing Thoughts. Healthline.

Schuchter, M.S. & Zisook, S. (1993). The course of normal grief. In M.S. Stroebe, W. Stroebe, & R.O. Hansson (Eds.) Handbook of Bereavement: Theory, Research, and Intervention (pp. 23-43). Cambridge University Press.