Counselling and career development

Loss and Grief

Being a student in an open and distance learning environment means that your studies are added to the environment that you live in. It is already a struggle to adopt new habits in order to remain motivated and complete your studies successfully every year – it becomes more difficult to remain on track with your studies when you experience a loss and need to work through the grief before you settle into your new sense of normal and recommit to your studies.

Loss can be sudden and unexpected, or long-term and expected. Loss can also manifest itself in many different ways. There are different levels of loss and the impact of a particular loss will be different for individuals. Loss can be experienced in a number of contexts, for example, the loss of loved ones due to illness, natural cause, trauma, or disaster; loss of identity due to immigration; loss of the ability to see, hear or walk; loss of employment and/or status or a career identity; loss of a marriage or relationship; loss of a beloved pet; loss of a home due to financial difficulties, retrenchment, illness, or retirement.  A loss is accompanied by a period of change and transition.


Grief is the response or reaction to a loss. The journey to grieving a loss is very personal and each person has their own unique ways to manage loss and grieving. Since the experience of loss is personal, we cannot prescribe how and when an individual should experience loss and grief. People have different ways of experiencing loss and how they grieve – each of us chooses how we deal with our losses. Even when an individual decides they do not want to experience the pain of loss. It is also their way to grieve.

Grieving is accompanied by a range of responses: emotional (feelings of sadness, guilt, anger, fear, etc.), behavioural (withdrawing from people; not getting your work done one time; battling to concentrate; sleeping problems), and physiological (nausea, fatigue, aches, and pain, weight loss or gain, and a lowered immune system). There are a number of reasons that also impact the process such as anger or other unfished business related to the relationship you had with the person you have to mourn. You may feel ambivalent about mourning but also being angry with the person who is not there anymore. It is important to resolve these feelings before healing can take place.

Often we do not take the time to work through and reflect on what the loss means in our lives and how it impacts our ability to move forward. It also happens that either we or people around you do not create space to mourn. In many contexts, it is hard or even frowned upon when someone is perceived as “not coping”. It may be difficult to talk to others about what you are going through. There may be the perception that talking to others about your loss is a sign of weakness and illustrates your inability to cope with a loss.

How do you create space for mourning and dealing with a loss even if the context that you find yourself in does not allow you to have space for conversation about your loss? How do you negotiate a space for healing? You can start by thinking about how you would want to “wash the wound” – are you ready to start dealing with your loss in a connected way (not detached or superficial). It could take days, months, or years for someone to find a way to cope with a loss.

Normally you will not deal with a loss and then it is gone. Time and again you will experience a sense of loss when you go through specific life events such as getting married, having a baby, graduating, and so on. Part of dealing with loss is also how you accept the loss. The circumstances of a loss will also impact how loss is viewed, and how we choose to continue.

Negotiating support for dealing with loss, especially during stressful times (e.g. dealing with exams)

Think about how and when you need support. For example, you are busy with your exams and you realise that your mother’s passing three months ago is now impacting your ability to focus on your exam preparation. You could think about how you would now need support to cope. You could choose to first cope with writing your examinations and then get support in terms of dealing with your loss. It could be that the anxiety and stress that normally accompanies exam periods trigger a deep sense of loss and loneliness.

Reflection questions

These questions could help you to see more clearly what the loss means and what you are able to do to come to acceptance. This may mean arriving at the place where the pain is more acceptable and fits into your everyday living instead of incapacitating you.  This together with the support you can negotiate with your family and others that could support you.

  1. Why do you think it is important for you now to talk to someone about your loss – what has recently happened that you think has impacted you? What else is going on in your life?
  2. Describe the nature of the loss? What happened?
  3. How does this loss maintain relationships or inhibits the ability to have fulfilled relationships with others?
  4. What are you mourning? What have you lost?
  5. How does this experience of loss impact your sense of self? (How do you see yourself before and after the loss?)
  6. What are you hoping for and how do you see things changing?
  7. Have you thought of finding a support group? With whom would you feel most comfortable? (Friends, family, your faith or spiritual group)
  8. If you are part of a group of people (for example, your family) that experienced a loss – how can you support each other to be able to go through the grieving processes?
  9. What would you be able to do for yourself? (Self-care activities; a creative outlet such as writing or making a memory book; deciding how you best express your grieving in order to heal – meaning planning how to deal with anniversaries to honour the loss as part of healing; using existing rituals of your family or spiritual tradition or creating new rituals)
  10. How can you move from where you are now to where you would like to be? (Grieving is natural; it helps you to heal; it follows its own timeline; it offers an opportunity for growth if it is embraced and put to work)
  11. When you have done all of the above … and you still feel troubled. What now? (Seeking help if you feel you cannot move on; when grieving becomes depression)

Need to talk to someone?

Need to talk to someone?

Learn more about the support services offered by the Unisa Directorate for Counselling and Career Development and how to contact a counsellor to have a conversation.

Last modified: 2021/03/05