Navigating the 5 stages of student debt grief

Navigating the 5 stages of student debt grief

by George Jankiewicz on Oct 11, 2017

Matthew Jankiewicz | October 11, 2017


Everything in life seems to involve some sort of process. Whether you are looking to buy a house, planning a vacation, writing a report, or cooking dinner, anything that is worth doing will entail a requisite number of steps accompanied by varying measures of invested time. Some things will naturally take longer, like remodeling your kitchen. Other tasks, like choosing a birthday card to mail to your favorite aunt, should require less time (although if you’ve ever found yourself wandering aimlessly up and down the expansive aisles of a Hallmark store, you know that this is not always the case).

Recognizing that we all possess a finite amount of resources in the form of time, energy, and money, we’ve naturally evolved as a society to the point where we’ve developed shortcuts to help alleviate the agony of trundling through the mire of some of life’s more dreadful processes. Undoubtedly, this helps to explain the recent boom of domestic cleaning services.

Despite our best efforts to inject more efficiency into every crevice of our lives, there remain some processes for which there are no shortcuts, but must simply be endured in their entirety. A few examples come to mind: muddling through the trials of puberty, the loss of a parent or a close relative, the nervous anticipation of seeking employment, the emotional investment of building friendships. Each of these milestones is earmarked with their own set of processes and obstacles. All of which is to say that there are many situations that must simply run their course, and the process of coming to terms with inordinate amounts of student debt is no exception.

I’m not going to insult your intelligence by telling you that if you have student debt everything is going to be all right, so we might as well all just dance around a bonfire while strumming ukuleles, shaking tambourines, and singing along to “Kumbaya” in the hopes of getting in touch with our feelings. The reality is that reconciling with your student debt, no matter how large or small, can be a painful experience. The ability to overcome the devastating grief can, at times, appear a Herculean task.

Here, I’ve taken the liberty of appropriating the 5 stages of grief, made famous by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her seminal palliative care handbook On Death and Dying, to outline my journey of coming to grips with my own avalanche of student debt. 

1) Denial

I’ve learned the hard way that playing the ignoramus never leads to positive results. Go ahead, try it. Ignore that street parking sign, pretend you never received your utility bills, neglect your health. Let’s see how far this gets you.

Unfortunately for me, this was the tactic that I initially took when it came time to deal with my student loans. I can vividly remember the first time I gathered up enough courage to take a gander at my accumulated student debt only to discover, to my chagrin, that it had already amounted to over $80,000. That was three years ago. By that time, I had already completed two and a half years of coursework and was just beginning to shift my focus on completing my graduate thesis.

I would be lying if I denied feeling that initial quiver of fear as I gazed upon the outlandish and (at the time) almost unfathomable figure. Already, a termite of doubt had begun to germinate in the back of my mind, casting doubts as to whether my pursuit to obtain an MFA in creative writing was worth the extravagant expense. But by then, turning back was no longer a valid option; I was neck-deep in my studies and completely submerged under my student loans.

Rather than taking ownership of my debt and putting a tight leash on it, I made the erroneous decision to push it out of my thoughts entirely. At least, I reasoned with a false assurance, until I graduated. In the meanwhile, focusing on such trifling distractions a student debt would only hinder my ability to finish my thesis. And so, suppressing the queasy feeling in my stomach, I continued to take out, even more, student loans while enrolled part-time for thesis credit hours.

2) Anger

Flash-forward two years later: I had finally graduated after five grueling years, my wife and I had moved to Texas (where we wouldn’t stay for long), and my six-month deferment was about to come to an end. Little did I know that interest capitalization was waiting for me just around the corner.

When I opened my statements a few months later, I was shocked to see that my debt had ballooned to over $140,000. Infuriated, I disrupted my wife during one of her sacred adult coloring book sessions to hand her a printed copy of my statements. “Can you believe this? This is an outrage! They must have made a mistake. I’m sure that I didn’t borrow this much money,” I complained. My wife, who had amassed a whopping $160,000 of student debt herself, looked up from her coloring book and at stared vacuously at the piece of paper I held out to her. A few seconds of silence passed as she appeared to let the numbers sink in before finally shrugging and saying, “Well, you’ll have to start paying it back, won’t you?”

That was all she had to say. There were no condolences attached, no discernable outrage, not even a hint of sympathy in her tone. I’ve seen her get more upset over the loss of a Cubs game. Her indifference only served to fuel my own boiling anger, and at that moment, I felt a kettle on the verge of erupting. Now mind you, I’m not the kind of guy to vent my frustrations by hollering and screaming. I tend to contain my anger on the inside, where it can fester into a toxic brew that has the uncanny ability to fill up a space like a foul stench, only to be released incrementally in self-destructive behaviors—like binge eating, watching excessive amounts of television while lying on the couch like a corpse, spending frivolously (I mean, how many candles does one person really need?), and withdrawing from social gatherings.

Alone with my own harsh thoughts, I constantly questioned whether going to graduate school was worth the turmoil and frustration. Why had I put myself through this kind of torture? At the time, I was a proofreader at a pharmaceutical company, a position that I could have gotten with a bachelor’s degree. My already small, grape-sized ego had suddenly diminished into a raisin. Whenever I gave in to that devious inner voice that confirmed my doubts and fears I would gaze up at that framed piece of paper—my diploma, the source of all my anguish—and find that it appeared to be about as worthless as a pair of used underwear.

After a few weeks, my anger was spent, and it wasn’t long before I found myself taking up a seat alongside my wife to fill out my own coloring book as a form of stress relief. In that moment, as I filled the contours of the intricate patterns, I imagined thousands of disillusioned graduates sitting around in small groups, perhaps at a local coffee shop, participating in their own coloring book therapy group sessions. For some reason, I always imagined these groups to be swaddled in silence, a tacit understanding of the trauma they’ve endured, their coloring books splayed out across their laps, sharpened colored pencils clenched a little too tightly in their grips.

3) Bargaining

One day, my wife came home from work and told me that she had a conversation with her co-workers about our debt situation, and jokingly said she even considered donating one of her eggs. “You can earn $8,000 by donating just one egg,” she told me, teasingly. Even if she wasn’t serious about becoming a donor, my mind began to race with the similar idea of donating my sperm. Unfortunately, this is not as lucrative an operation as one would think. In fact, sperm donors are only paid $35 per sample, and can only qualify every six months. This, I reasoned, is not a valid side hustle.

Therein marked the beginning of the bargaining phase of my grief.

One afternoon, not long after my sperm donor idea, I was running on the treadmill at the gym (by then the grim symbolism had become only too obvious), my eyes pivoting from one television screen to the next, when my attention snagged on an episode of Family Feud.

That’s it! I thought. We’re going on Family Feud where we would have the chance to win $100,000. It wouldn’t knock out all the debt, but it would certainly help to bring it down to a more manageable size. You know you’re desperate when $40,000 of debt looks small in comparison.

All I had to do was wrangle up either side of our immediate family to join our endeavor. Unfortunately, it turned out that both sides of our family were too horror-stricken by the possibility of humiliating themselves in public, a point that hadn’t crossed my mind. After all, by my observation, they already had years of experience publicly humiliating themselves.

4) Depression

But none of my windfall operations came to be. Sure, I was able to make a few extra dollars on the side doing deliveries, but even if I were to earn $10 per delivery (including a very generous tip), I would have to make 19,333 deliveries over the span of ten years to cover the full cost of my student debt. Put in another way, that averages to more than five deliveries per day, every day, for ten years.

This realization is enough to drown even the most insouciant person in defeat. My self-proclaimed brilliant ideas to come up with cash quickly began to trickle and then come to a halt altogether, only to be replaced by an overwhelming tide of anguish. Real, down-in-the-pits anguish. Not the kind of sadness you feel when your ice-cream slips out of its cone and lands on the hot pavement. I’m talking about the kind of sadness that makes you feel like you’re in a dark hole with not a pinprick of light in sight.

Apparently, I’m not the only one, as confirmed by researchers at the University of South Carolina and the University of California, Los Angeles. Knowing that others experience the same feelings helped a little, but it didn’t erase the pain I felt.

I wasn’t sad just because every dollar I earned seemed to disappear into the pit of my debt sinkhole. It was more than that. I felt like I had lost my dignity. After all, only an idiot could manage to get themselves into a situation like this. Masking my concerns became even more of a challenge as I tried to wipe my sadness off my sleeve. I became restive around everyone I interacted with, feeling like a loaded mousetrap as I tried my best to avoid the discussion of money from entering any conversation.

In addition to feeling less than zero, our ability to become homeowners has been put on an indefinite hiatus, the thought of having children felt more like a burden than a blessing, and every hour of work has become an obligation rather than an opportunity for personal growth. No matter how I tried to break down the numbers, no matter which loan calculator I used, I realized there was no coefficient that would change the bleak outcome. Our student debt was not going away anytime soon.

5) Acceptance

Living with astronomical amounts of student debt is not an easy pill to swallow. There are still some days when I dwell on our situation a bit longer than I should, slipping back into the stage of anger or depression. I’ve found that staring at your student loan bills for hours is about as helpful as staring directly into the sun.

To say that I’m content with my situation would be a gross oversimplification. It would be more accurate to say that we are slowly learning to deal with our situation with each passing day. The more we learn, the more aware we are of helpful ways we can pay down our debt or refinance our loans, the less daunting our debt challenge becomes.

Our only goal is to keep going. One saving grace is knowing that if my wife continues to work in her current job for another eight years, her student loans will be forgiven through the Federal Student Loan Forgiveness Program. I’ll take any consolation I can get. Thank goodness it looks like she’ll be grandfathered into the program, even if it does go away.

The only option we have is to keep going, to forge ahead no matter how rough the waters get. After all, we all know what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.

The content is developed from sources believed to be providing accurate information. The information in this material is not intended as tax or legal advice. It may not be used for the purpose of avoiding any federal tax penalties. Please consult legal or tax professionals for specific information regarding your individual situation. This material was written by Matthew Jankiewicz. Matthew Jankiewicz is not affiliated with United Planners Financial Services of America. The opinions expressed and material provided are for general information, and should not be considered a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security. Copyright 2017 Matthew Jankiewicz.

Note: This article originally appeared on My Strategic Dollar on September 15, 2017.


Matthew Jankiewicz is a freelance copywriter, blogger, and founder of Finance Crusader. When not busy writing, you can find him biking along Lake Shore Drive, reading at your favorite local bookstore, or attending open-mic comedy shows. His online residence can be found at