My College:
Family Life

Coping With a Family Emergency

Scott Sager

My daughter was in her final semester of college, working hard to finish senior projects in addition to being on production crews for a number of theater shows, when she faced a difficult decision. Her grandmother was in the hospital with an unexpected and serious condition. How should she manage her conflicting desires to see her grandmother and remain plugged into her busy life on campus?

My own dilemma: what should I encourage her to do?

While this might be an extreme example of the possible family circumstances that intrude on a student’s college experience, there are many and they come up regularly. A cousin’s wedding, a significant birthday or anniversary of parents or other older family members, or even a sibling’s big event could make a demand on your student and require a decision about leaving campus at an inconvenient time.

It’s easy to forget how insular and all-consuming college life can be for many students, involved with classes, projects, extracurricular activities, jobs, volunteering in the community and on and on. And don’t forget their social lives.

It helped me to recall when my father passed away. I was in graduate school, still in the early stages of living together with my then girlfriend and future wife, my first year in New York City. Life felt full and busy and very exciting and important. Of course I returned home for the funeral, spent some time with family and helped out a little. But I headed back to school in short order to resume what felt like my real life.

I could have simply told my daughter what to do, that she was — or wasn’t — required to get on a plane and come see her sick grandmother ASAP. I feel certain she would have resented my heavy-handedness. More importantly, she’s 21 now and I shouldn’t be making emotional decisions for her, even with the best of intentions.

Sure, my instinct is to protect my daughter from emotional pain in all its forms but another, more important part of my job is to help her grow up and I can’t do both of those things at the same time.

With some help from me, she considered the options in light of her feelings for her grandmother, her sense of responsibility to family, and her desire not to shirk her responsibilities and commitments at school. We talked about regret. We also talked about decisions and how she could only make the best one at this moment and live with the consequences, some of which she might not be able to predict.

By giving my daughter a chance to think through the situation and come to her own conclusion, I hope I gave her a chance to learn about herself, what she values, how she’ll have to weigh so many decisions in her adult life and what that feels like.

We had about a day to strategize. I searched airline schedules and she talked to friends to see what could be postponed or covered by someone else. She carved out part of the next weekend, and when we figured it all out, there was a way to make the flight to Florida work within the constraints of time and money.

Most importantly, though, she decided what was most important to her and acted on it.

I have never felt so proud of her.

Scott Sager, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York, is the father of two daughters, one in college and the other a recent graduate. With past lives as a social worker, preschool teacher and at-home dad, he brings a broad perspective to varied topics touching on family life, child development and education. He definitely gets how unpredictable the adventure of raising children can be and how every bit of information and each connection can help parents along the way.
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