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The five stages of first-year grief

Ever since coming to Duke I have felt like there are 40 tabs open in my brain at once, all of them incoherently unrelated and as soon as one is closed, another immediately opens. I believe that being a first-year is unique in this way—you are always working to understand this new way of living while simultaneously grieving your old way of living. Even if college was immediately everything you wished for and more, you still have to face, conquer, and make peace with adjustments from your old way of living.

I was recently chatting with a psychology major friend about the Kübler-Ross Cycle of Grief and how it can be applied to things outside of its typical application to those experiencing the death of a loved one. And I realized something. The five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance that are presented within the cycle loosely follow the mix of feelings I have experienced and know many others have experienced since move-in day this past year. So, I now present to you my humble thesis: The Five Stages of First-Year Grief.


Characterized by feelings of avoidance, confusion, elation, shock and fear

The denial phase begins where everyone begins at Duke: orientation week, better known as O-week. Nothing makes it easier to avoid confronting the gigantic life shift that is college like no work and all play for a whole week. Elation is the main feeling at first as many first-years experience full-range autonomy over their lives for the first time. Confusion sets in as classes begin, especially surrounding the inner workings of food points versus meal swipes versus flex points and figuring out the best times to get on the C1 without a brawl. The overwhelming amount of new information, faces, and experiences lends no time to text or call family and friends, let alone the time to process everything for oneself. But denial never lasts forever.


Characterized by feelings of frustration, irritation and anxiety

Ah, midterm season. A fabulous time to coincide with the O-week haze being lifted from first years’ vision of Duke. There is anger for a variety of reasons. For some, it is that first low grade bringing them back into a rigorous academic reality. For others, anger occurs as a product of having to adjust to a new lifestyle while also keeping up with Duke’s school and social demands. And for others, it is the realization that Duke is not as play hard as the first few weeks made it seem. For me, it was the switch from solely having readings as homework to all of a sudden having three midterm papers due on the same day. There is no frustration (or anger) greater than finishing 1,500 words on one paper then having to write 2,500 for another and 2,500 for yet another. Shifts in O-week friend groups begin to occur too, which only serves to heighten levels of anxiety and feelings of instability. The curtain has been pulled back and the game of understanding oneself as a Duke student begins.


Characterized by a struggle to find meaning, the act of reaching out to others and telling one’s story

Around late October, midterm season has died down, giving first-years slightly more free time to reflect on their time so far at Duke. Questions of is this the place for me? Do I like it here? How could I make myself enjoy my time here more? What am I doing here? What should I be doing here? Do I transfer? swirl in many minds. During the anger phase, I kept these questions down, determined not to let anyone know I was unsure about Duke. However, in this phase, instead of keeping these feelings pent up, I began to reach out to my friends, bargaining for answers and a light at the end of the tunnel. And they did the same. With this openness, everyone begins to realize they are all struggling with the same thoughts about Duke and about college in general. It is comforting, but this universality of experience can also be crippling as it turns out no one has the answers to what the meaning of being here is. 


Characterized by feelings of being overwhelmed, hostility and helplessness and the act of “flight” 

Bargaining is quickly followed by a bout of depression. The most obvious sign of this phase in first-years is the deep, almost desperate, eagerness to leave school at the first available chance. Flights are booked mere hours after their last final exams and the majority of December conversations inevitably devolve into “I cannot wait to go home.” For me, this depression stemmed from a post-Thanksgiving haze of seeing old high school friends and reuniting with family as well as the seemingly never-ending first finals season grind. A consequent drain on everyone’s energy seems to occur, sending people further into their rabbit hole of helplessness as they weave their way through WU, aching to find an open table as their last beacon of hope. With each passing day of finals week, East Campus grows emptier and emptier, leaving those with late finals feeling empty. At the height of it all, even Duke seems to give up as they cut off the electricity of the East Campus streetlights three days before the last students leave. The first-years return home wondering: do I have to return?


Characterized by the act of exploring options, putting a new plan in place and moving on

Alas, the first-years must return or else their complaints about tuition are all for nothing. Yet, something surprising is in store, something called The Settling of Second Semester. It happens to everyone for different reasons and in different ways—maybe a sudden disconnected feeling between high school friends or in my case, a Marketplace-shaped hole in the heart—but regardless, a collective acceptance of the fact that Duke is where they will be for the next four years and by golly, they are okay with that! At the very least, they have to be okay with it. They make spring break and beach week plans, apply to summer internships and programs, and decide on roommate blocks for sophomore year. Life at home feels farther away and life at Duke feels full of excitement and possibility.

Olivia Bokesch is a Trinity first-year. Her column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.   


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