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Loss and Grief: Supporting Your Student

David Tuttle

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My first encounter with loss and grief came when I was at college. I received the call in my residence hall room from my father. He called to say that my mom had passed away.

I was stunned.

It was unexpected at the time and would change the course of my life in multiple ways, both large and small.

The hallowed halls of higher education are many things. But they don’t shield students from life or death. I am not the only one to lose a parent or another loved one while in college. And 1981 was a long time ago, but I remember it with clarity as if it were yesterday.

In my role as a dean of students, I reached out to students when I learned of the losses they experienced. Over time, I made meaningful connections with students who were grappling with death, which ultimately led to the creation of a supportive Grief Group. The group's charm was that students were unique in their personalities and lifestyles but almost instantly bonded over their experience with loss and grief.

After one of our first meetings, a father called to tell me the group didn’t help his daughter. In fact, it made things worse. This was a jarring epiphany. From that time forward, I led with a statement that mourning cannot be rushed, steps could not be skipped, and indeed, the group was not intended to remove grief but to help make it more manageable.

When students experience loss, it can mean their past, present, and future are forever changed. Students often pre-grieve the absence of their parent or loved one at future graduations, weddings, and births. And the past is tainted with sadness.

[W]e overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered. – Ann Patchett, The Dutch House

While the Grief Group was a club no one wanted to be drafted into, it helped those who chose to participate. It wasn’t for everyone. If you have experienced loss in your family, or if your student has experienced the loss of a loved one, there are some commonalities that may be helpful on the road back.

What to Know

1. Grief at college is isolating.

Of course, this can be true of any traumatic experience. Students who have been sexually assaulted, dealing with mental health issues, being asked to speak for their race in class, or finding and expressing their sexual identity all often report feeling isolated.

What makes trauma difficult is its endurance. Students who experience a loss still have to juggle classes, studying, activities, jobs, parties, and campus events. And these things don’t take someone’s mind off of the loss. The normalcy in a time that is not at all normal and familiar can make matters worse.

In the Grief Group, students found kindred souls who simply “got it.”

2. Loss is distracting at a time when focus is required.

Students are often surprised and frustrated by grief's impact on attention, focus, memory, and stamina, making it much harder to complete school work. It accompanies them every moment of every day, sapping them of energy and joy.

At the same time, the assignments keep coming. I used to tell students that sometimes just getting out of bed is success enough.

3. Loss and grief is not linear.

The five stages of grief have been adapted from the five stages of dying (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross). Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance do not follow a defined arc (and may not all present themselves). What students tell us is that the unpredictability of the grief process is one of its hallmarks.

This means that emotions can well up at unusual times. Though there can be many triggers (birthdays, death anniversaries), sometimes emotions just spring forth unannounced. Students tend to have bad days and less-bad days (not many good days).

In the action-packed world of a college campus where students are on the go, focused on school and work, and stressed and tired, it is no wonder that emotions sometimes need to just let themselves peer out from the subconscious.

But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking over a brackish wreck which was illumined in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead. – Donna Tart, The Goldfinch

I used to remind students, anxious to function as they used to, that the death just happened. This doesn’t matter if it is a week or a year. That first year is especially difficult when every new experience without the loved one is so evident.

4. Friends don’t always know what to say (and neither do grown-ups).

When I had to meet with a professor to discuss missed work, he could barely look me in the eye, let alone offer condolences. Students report this all the time. People often fear saying the wrong thing, so they will instead say nothing at all.

This can compound the feelings of isolation. Well-meaning friends may say things like they “know how you feel” because their family pet died. Or, in an attempt to get the student unstuck, say, “you aren’t over that yet?” Well, no. Grief may subside but never truly goes away.

People in the real world always say, when something terrible happens, that the sadness and loss and aching pain of the heart will "lessen as time passes," but it isn’t true. Sorrow and losses are constant, but if we all had to go through our whole lives carrying them the whole time, we wouldn’t be able to stand it. The sadness would paralyze us. So in the end, we just pack it into bags and find somewhere to leave it. – Fredrik Backman, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

5. Family-centered events and holidays are really hard.

As other students prepare to join family for the holidays, grieving students often dread these family celebrations. There will be a void and anxiety about the unknown — not just for them but for others in the family. So, conversations about Family Weekend, holiday plans, and breaks can be unbearable. They serve as reminders of loss and uncertainty.

How to Help Your Student Through Loss and Grief

Remember that grief is very personal.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mourning. I quickly learned that while the Grief Group could be helpful, it requires an engagement that may not meet everyone’s comfort level.

Some students throw themselves into their work, spend time with significant others, or just want to process internally. It may be worth talking to your student about how they like to grieve. They may just want you, or they may wish to see a grief counselor.

Encourage your student to give grace to others.

This can be really hard, but before your student experienced loss, they probably were ill-prepared to respond to others as well. It can be so evident to those who are suffering, but others, especially college-age, are often just muddling through it. The student who relates that their dog died? Of course, they understand the difference. Most likely, they are trying to say, “I have felt loss, and it is really hard.”

Find those who can help.

It's important for students to identify those who are comfortable with the uncomfortable. I used to urge my students to find those who they can really count on, on a visceral level. Without burning these people out, these friends can be their go-to people when they are having bad days. Indeed, I coached students to tell others very clearly: “I am having a bad day. I just need to talk. You can’t fix it, but it will make me feel better.”

Having people that students can count on, and circle back with, is really important.

Rituals matter, and so does talking.

This can be really hard for parents who have lost a partner or child. The grief can be overwhelming. Students, though, are looking to their grown-ups for emotional support, consistency, and sensitivity.

Families who do the best, share their grief with one another a lot. But there is a limit. Some students find themselves in an unfamiliar parental role with the surviving parent. Finding someone, in addition to your child, to process with can take off the pressure.

Discussing holidays, birthdays, breaks, and anniversaries ahead of time can help reduce uncertainty and stress and ensure family members are having their needs met. I have known families to spend their first major holiday on a family trip. The avoidance can only go so far, but it can temporarily ease the pain of the empty chair back home.

No matter how much time passes, those we have loved never slip away from us entirely. – Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

I know students who will listen to voicemails from their missing loved one, or routinely scroll through photos on their phones. The fact is, above all else, students are missing the person they lost. They often want to remember, talk, and memorialize.

Be sensitive about big changes.

Students who've lost a family member, especially a parent, are on emotional roller coasters. What they crave is constancy in their topsy-turvy new world.

Introducing dating, new partners, or selling the family home can be gut punches for students in grief. Certainly, these things may unfold. However, waiting, discussing, and preparing is much better than springing surprises. It's really important to consider the feelings of students who feel compounding losses.

And depending on the time of year, students can take some time away from college. If the academic calendar aligns, even a semester off can be helpful, though most students view missing school and friends as a loss.

In Summary

I hope that you have not, or won’t, experience a loss in your family while your students are in college. If you do, communicate a lot with your student about how they are feeling and how you can be supportive. Know that their school has many resources to help with logistics, counseling, and support.

Finally, because college students are adults, in many ways, people can erroneously assume they're able to handle loss better than younger children. In fact, that assumption can make it worse. People expect quicker healing and less emotion.

Handling of loss is neither good nor bad, strong nor weak. It simply is.

If your student needs immediate attention, please called the 24-hour helpline for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA). The helpline is a free, confidential service which provides referrals and helpful information in both English and Spanish. The site also provides an online treatment locator to find services near you.

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David Tuttle spent over 30 years in higher education in Residential Life and Student Affairs and has sent four children to college. He is the proprietor of a student and parent assistance service, PROsper Collegiate, LLC. Contact him at [email protected].
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