Counseling and Psychological Services

Traumatic Loss

Although a sudden death affects people differently, there are some common reactions that you may experience.

Some people may experience little reaction to the event while others may experience strong reactions. These signs could begin right away, or you might feel fine for a couple of days or weeks, then later be hit with a reaction. The important thing to remember is that these reactions are quite normal. Although you may feel some distress, this is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.

Counseling services and same-day crisis intervention are available through Counseling and Psychological Services to help students manage personal distress and provide them with skills to function as they meet the demands of a campus environment.

Common Responses to a Traumatic Loss
Physical Reactions
  • Insomnia or Nightmares
  • Fatigue, Hyperactivity or "nervous energy"
  • Change in appetite 
  • Pain in the neck or back
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations or pains in the chest 
  • Dizzy spells
Emotional Reactions
  • Flashbacks or "reliving" the event
  • Excessive jumpiness or tendency to be startled
  • Irritability 
  • Anger 
  • Feelings of anxiety or helplessness
Effect on Productivity
  • Inability to concentrate 
  • Increased incident of errors 
  • Lapses of memory 
  • Increase in absenteeism

  • Be tolerant of your reactions—they are normal and will subside with time. Acknowledge that it may be awhile before you are entirely back to normal.
  • Give yourself time. You may feel better for awhile, and then have a relapse. This is normal. Allow plenty of time to adjust to the new realities.
  • Spend time with others, even though it may be difficult at first. It is easy to withdraw when you’re hurt, but you need the company of others.
  • Talk about the experience with your friends. For most people talking helps relieve some of the intense emotions when under stress.
  • Stay active. Trying to keep your normal routine will keep your mind off the trauma, will give you a sense of comfort while performing familiar tasks, and will help put some psychological distance between you and the event.
  • Structure your time even more carefully than usual. It's normal to forget things when you're under stress. Keep lists and double-check any important work.
  • Maintain control where you can. Make small decisions, even if you feel that it’s unimportant or you don’t care. It’s important to maintain control in some areas of your life.
  • Let the event motivate you to do something about the causes of the trauma or allow you to feel more control; e.g., join groups that address issues related to the event, look for ways to help others.
  • Ask for help if you are particularly bothered by your reactions to the event, or notice that they interfere substantially with your social life or work. Make an appointment with Counseling and Psychological Services.

Oberlin College is committed to caring for our students’ intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. When a national or world tragedy occurs, faculty members often express their wish to help their students effectively deal with the aftermath. There is no single correct time for these discussions. It is probably best to consider a discussion within a week of the tragedy.

If you prefer not to provide discussion time during class, even if you do not wish to lead an in-classroom discussion, it is probably best to acknowledge the event. A national or local tragedy can result in students having difficulty concentrating. Failure to mention the event can result in students becoming angry at what they label as a “professor’s insensitivity to what happened.”

If you choose not to devote discussion time to the event, you might mention that tragedies stir up many emotions and that you want to remind the students that there are resources on campus where they might consider seeking support. Our campus resources include Counseling and Psychological Services, Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, and Residential Education.

If you wish to provide an opportunity for discussion, here are some ideas to consider.

  1. Make it brief
    Consider providing an opportunity at the beginning of a class period. A short time period is more effective than a whole class period. This serves the purpose of acknowledging that students may be reacting to a recent event without pressuring them to speak.
  2. Acknowledge the event
    Introduce the opportunity by briefly acknowledging the tragic event and suggesting that it might be helpful to share personal reactions.
  3. Allow brief discussion of the facts and then shift to emotions
    Often the discussion starts with students asking questions about what actually happened and “debating” some details. People are more comfortable discussing facts, than feelings, so it’s best to allow this exchange for a brief period of time. After facts have been exchanged, you can try to shift the discussion toward sharing personal and emotional reactions.
  4. Invite students to share emotional and personal responses 
    You might lead off by saying something like, “Often it is helpful to share your own emotional responses and hear how others are responding. It doesn’t change the reality, but it takes away the sense of loneliness that sometimes accompanies stressful events. I would be grateful for whatever you are willing to share.”
  5. If students begin debating the right way to react to a tragedy, it is useful to comment that each person copes with stress in a unique way, and there is no right way to react.
  6. Be prepared for blaming
    When people are upset, they often look for someone to blame. Essentially, this is a displacement of anger. It is a way of coping. The idea is that if someone did something wrong, then future tragedies can be avoided by doing things right. If the discussion lingers on placing blame, it might be useful to say, “We have been focusing on our senses of anger and blame, and that’s not unusual. It might be useful to talk about our fears.”
  7. It is normal for people to seek an explanation of why the tragedy occurred. By understanding, we seek to reassure ourselves that a similar event could be prevented in the future. You might comment that, as intellectual beings:
  •  We always seek to understand
  •  It is very challenging to understand unthinkable events
  •  By their very natures, tragedies are especially difficult to explain
  •  Uncertainty is particularly distressing, but sometimes is inevitable

The faculty member is better off resisting the temptation to make meaning of the event. That is not your responsibility and would not be helpful.

Thank students for sharing and remind them of resources on campus. In ending the discussion, it is useful to comment that people cope in a variety of ways. If a student would benefit from a one-on-one discussion, encourage them to make use of campus resources. These include Counseling and Psychological Services and Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.

* This information was written and used with permission of Joan Whitney, PhD, executive director, University Counseling Cener, Villanova University.