When someone suffers a loss, it disrupts their sense of the order of things and can sometimes lead to feelings that life is out of control and meaningless. While in college, students may deal with the death of a parent, sibling, friend, or classmate. These deaths may be accidental, e.g., a car accident or a drug overdose; may be sudden, e.g., a parent having a heart attack; or may be the result of a long illness, a grandparent dying of cancer. An entire campus or academic department may grieve the death of a beloved professor or classmate. Feelings are often compounded by a sense of shock and a longing for the opportunity to “say good-bye.” The loss of meaning and control adds distress to grief. Regaining meaning and a sense of control may help students endure the grieving process. Those experiencing grief tend to function better within an already established support system (e.g., family and friends). Grief is a natural process but may become complicated (e.g., the student is not able to function and may be depressed) and therefore need some type of therapeutic intervention.
If you are aware that a student is grieving:
- Ask if the student wants to talk about the death/loss.
- Support any type of reaction (e.g., some students may not cry, but feel guilty about this; others may feel that constant crying is “not normal”). Grieving takes many forms and is individual to each person.
- Listen carefully. This can help a student gain an understanding of his/her feelings and clarify options for dealing with them.
- Encourage the student to be with family or friends, which may mean taking time away from the university.
- Recognize that spiritual and religious doubts can be triggered and this is normal; if it seems appropriate, suggest discussing feelings with a religious leader.
- When/if appropriate, you may suggest ways that the student can give meaning to the event by memorializing the person who died (e.g., planting a flower or tree; writing a letter/poem/eulogy; creating a memory book; making a quilt; helping to plan a memorial service).
- Be aware that family may be urging the student to stay in school though the student longs to be at home (particularly with the death or imminent death of a parent).
- Refer the student to Counseling and Wellness Services [or call (906) 487-2538 to consult].
- For questions about withdrawing from classes, refer the student to the Registrar’s Office.
- Assume you know how the student is feeling. For example, avoid saying, “I know how you feel.”
- Feel pressure to “say the right thing” or break silences. Your supportive and caring presence can be comforting.
- Force discussion about death and loss.
- Minimize the loss. For example avoid saying, “Think how much worse it could be.”
- Judge the student’s response to death. Instead, accept any reaction unless it seems extreme or frightening to you, in which case you should consider walking the student over to Counseling Services.
This page was adapted with permission from material developed by the University of California, Santa Barbara.