Managing Death in Family While in College

By Staff Writers

Published on February 12, 2021

Managing Death in Family While in College

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Grief and Loss for College Students

Dealing with grief is often one of the challenges many college students will likely face while matriculating through school. Coping with loss can be especially challenging for students away from their family, often for the first time ever. “Across studies we see that 35 to 45 percent of college students are within two years of the death of a family member or a friend,” says Heather L. Servaty-Seib, an Indiana-based psychologist and expert in the areas of adolescent bereavement, social support and grief. “One recent study indicated that just over 30 percent of college students may experience a death each year.”

To put it plainly, grief should be taken seriously no matter the cause. This guide will provide some insight into how college students may best manage their grief and highlight some of the many resources available to help them cope.

Life Events That Can Trigger Grief

A wide array of emotional experiences may invoke feelings of grief and extreme sadness among young adults, especially when there is a sudden or unexpected loss. For many college students, it may be the first time they’re dealing with an experience of this magnitude. Here are some of the most common causes of grief:

Death/Dying The death, or impending death of a relative, friend or pet is the most expected and well-known trigger of grief among college students. “In terms of death losses, the two most common are the death of a grandparent and the death of a friend,” says Servaty-Seib, who is co-author of “We Get It: Voice of Grieving College Students And Young Adults.” “Interestingly, these two may also be the most commonly disenfranchised experiences of grief faced by young people. It is not common for society to [not] give as much acknowledgement or even as much weight to these losses as they might to the deaths of parents and siblings. However, these losses are crucial to college student development.” Regardless of the relationship one had with the person who died or is dying, Servaty-Seib says it is important to acknowledge that everyone grieves differently based on the specific relationship he or she had with the deceased. “The best approach is to be open and direct about how everyone will grieve differently — and how it’s not only okay, it is absolutely to be expected,” she says. “Family members need to be respectful of those differences and be open to conversations about those differences.” The death of a fellow young adult, such as a classmate or friend, often hits especially close to home, too, because it forces the student to face — often for the first time in their lives — his or her own mortality. Losing a peer to suicide is of especially high concern among young adults, too. “The research shows that it is the leading cause of death among teenagers and young adults,” Coleman notes.
Serious Illness There are many serious health problems that surface for the first time during the young adult years; coping with them can be especially tough for college students juggling the social and academic demands of school. “Age, coupled with the circumstance of living away from home for the first time can be ‘the perfect storm’ to trigger the grieving process,” explains Monica Coleman, a Metro Atlanta-based licensed psychotherapist. Health challenges, she says, may also include mental health issues such as depression and bipolar disorder. Coping with the serious illness of a relative, friend or fellow classmate may also bring on feelings of guilt about being away during a challenging time or conjure up concerns about financial problems that may arise due to a loved one’s serious illness.
Divorce/Separation Major life changes like the divorce or separation of one’s parents and other serious family conflict may also spark grief. “There may be the sense that their family is falling apart; it is not uncommon to mourn the ‘death’ of the way things were,” notes Coleman, a former college campus counselor. “It can be extra tough to deal with these transitions if you are away from your family.” She suggests parents keep the lines of communication open and encourage their child to express his or her feelings openly and without judgement. It’s also important, she says, for parents to check in regularly to ensure their mourning child is not turning to drugs or alcohol to cope. “When the situation is complicated by experimentation with drugs, the perfect storm can quickly escalate into a hurricane,” she adds.
Relationship Struggles Coping with relationship problems from general conflict to problems with physical and/or emotional abuse can be especially taxing for young adults. Ending an interpersonal relationship — be it romantic or with a friend — may also spark the grieving process. “Heartbreak is tough for anyone at any age, but when it happens parents should offer a listening ear and compassionate heart,” Coleman says. “This can also be a great opportunity to bond by sharing their own relationship and friendship struggles and how they overcame them. It’s a chance to assure them that they can get through the challenges they’re dealing with.”
Career/Academic Challenges Attending college is often a dream tied to specific academic and career goals; when students fall short or don’t reach the level of success they’d expected, it can feel like an irrevocable loss — a death even. “When a student loses the dream of succeeding academically or a certain level of success in his or her major, it can be pretty devastating,” Coleman adds. “For example, someone who had their sights set on becoming a doctor who ends up performing poorly in science and math courses. Many students end up grieving [what they feel is] the loss of their ideal career.”
Crying, fatigue, insomnia, headaches, panic attacks, loss of appetite, social isolation, feelings of hopelessness and despair, and a loss of interest in schoolwork or other activities previously enjoyed are just some of the many ways that grief may show up in a student’s life. It can adversely affect a student’s academic performance and, when not adequately addressed, may also escalate into more serious issues, such as depression, physical ailments, suicidal thoughts and substance abuse problems.

The promising news about grieving as a student is there are plenty of resources available on college and university campuses to help one work through his or her feelings. “If your child experiences a mental health issue or any other serious challenges related to the grieving process, don’t be afraid to visit them on campus to check on them in person or to reach out to professionals on campus for referrals or support,’” Coleman says. “If [someone on campus has] reached out to you, consider that your child is in trouble and needs your immediate support.”

Specific resources will vary by campus, but it’s most important to know that help is available for both parents and students. “Units that come to mind include dean of students, residential life, counseling center and campus ministry,” explains Servaty-Seib. “There are also community-based support centers for grieving families like the National Alliance for Grieving Children; these centers are starting to offer young adult support groups. Groups [like these] are a huge resource for grieving students, but not all campuses offer them. There is also a grassroots organization called Actively Moving Forward with chapters on campuses across the country. “It makes such a difference when grieving students can connect with each other and find even one person who ‘gets’ a piece of what they are experiencing,” adds Servaty-Seib.

Coleman also notes that due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, students don’t have to share academic information with their parents, so you may not be aware that grieving is affecting your student academically. That is why keeping the lines of communication open is essential, experts say. “Ask them about how they’re doing in their classes and how they’re doing overall,” says Coleman. “This can be a great foundation to build a relationship and for them to feel like you’re building an adult relationship.” While communication is important, Servaty-Seib asserts that parents should also respect boundaries with their ever-evolving young adult. “They want to ‘be there’ for their grieving child, but they also don’t want to demand that their child share with them,” she says. “Young people will have their own time table and way of sharing and parents can simply state that they will talk whenever their child may feel the need.”

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