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How to Help if Your Student is Struggling with Grief

CollegiateParent


As parents, we always want what’s best for our children. But despite our best efforts, some things in life are out of our control.

As our children grow into college students, our ability to protect them from the realities of life is even further diminished.

 

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Whether it’s the death of a family member or loved one, the suicide of a friend, divorce or another traumatic life event, episodes of grief in life are inevitable for your student.

And when our students experience grief in college, the impacts can seriously affect their emotional and mental health, and perhaps even lead to depression. This can make going to class and maintaining good grades tough for your student.

It’s important for students who are experiencing grief to prioritize working through it in a healthy way so they can refocus on school when the time is right.

Family members — and parents especially — can play a big support role in helping students work through their grief. However, we're not all experienced at this kind of thing. It can be particularly difficult when we’re suffering from grief ourselves.

There are healthy ways to help your student manage their grief. Each type of trauma is unique, and can result in its own form of grief. Below we look at different hardships individually, and outline ways you can help your student navigate each of them. 

Grief Over Divorce

Divorce can be more common once kids head off to college and parents become empty nesters.

But just because students are young adults who can fend for themselves doesn’t mean they won’t feel grief over their parents’ divorce.

Even if divorce is the best thing for you and your spouse, it could present the following challenges for your student:

  • Feeling like they don’t have a home
  • Feeling like they have to take a side
  • Worried you won’t be able to help them pay for college
  • Not knowing which parent to stay with on holiday and summer breaks
  • Feeling angry about your or your spouse’s new partner
  • Feeling like your divorce is their fault

To help your student through the feelings of grief they may be having during (or after) your divorce, it’s important for you and your spouse to talk to your student together. Choose a time when they're not worried about school, like during summer or winter break.

When you talk to your student, focus on them. They don’t need to know the specific reasons why you are getting divorced. The real reasons for your divorce — for example, infidelity or loss of attraction — could make them take sides. What’s important is that they accept the decision to divorce as what’s best for both of their parents.

They also don’t need to know if just one of you wants a divorce, while perhaps the other wants to make it work. Even though it may be tempting to explain this to your student, you risk making their other parent an enemy. And anything that makes your student feel like they have to take sides can be destructive to their emotional well-being.

Make sure your student knows that the divorce is a mutual decision that has nothing to do with them. You can encourage them that they will have always have a home with both of their parents, and that they can choose who they want to stay with on breaks.

After the divorce, keep an eye on your student’s emotional health. If they’re struggling, consider connecting them with a therapist or their school’s mental health resources.

Grief Over Suicide

Approximately 1,100 college students commit suicide each year — these college suicides create circles of peers who struggle with grief on campuses across the country.

In general, over 40,000 people commit suicide in the U.S. each year. One of those people could be a family member, friend or mentor to your college student.

If your student loses a loved one to suicide, they’re dealing with extreme grief that could make normal life a challenge. They’re likely to be feeling a mix of shock, denial, sadness, anger and guilt.

Your student might say they’re okay, even when they’re not. They may also go through periods of numbness, or anger at the person who committed suicide. They may even experience feelings of guilt — that if they had said or done something different, the person wouldn’t have committed suicide.

While these feelings are extremely painful, they’re completely normal. The most powerful way you can help your student is by being a shoulder to lean on, a non-judgmental listener.

It’s also critical to be patient — healing takes time. Let your student work through the phases of grief at their own pace, and help them ultimately arrive at a place of acceptance:

  • Acceptance that they can miss the person but continue living their own life.
  • Acceptance that the suicide was not their fault.
  • Acceptance that it’s okay to find their own happiness and to move on, while still holding close the memory of the person they lost.

Encourage your student to spend time with a therapist. Most colleges and universities offer mental health services, with access to professionals who can counsel your student as they work through their grief. Many schools also have grief and loss groups, where survivors can help each other. Active Minds is a non-profit organization dedicated to suicide prevention and mental health support with student-run chapters on more than 500 campuses.

Meditation is another powerful tool for working through grief. Your student’s school likely has mindfulness groups that could help your student learn to center themselves and find peace.

Once your student has reached a level of acceptance at which life starts to become a little more normal again, there are habits they can practice to help them maintain their emotional balance:

Find Time to Grieve
  • Whether it’s talking to a friend, family member, therapist, or just spending time alone with their feelings, it’s important that your student feels empowered to express their grief on a regular basis.
  • They won’t ever stop missing their friend or loved one, and pretending like they never existed won’t help.
Do something fun
  • Sometimes, laughter is the best medicine.
  • When they’re ready, encourage your student to go out with friends, go to parties, and allow themselves to have a little fun.
Stay healthy
  • A good diet, minimal use of drugs and alcohol, and regular exercise will keep your student’s body healthy, which will help them keep their mind healthy throughout this difficult time.
Develop a routine
  • Having a regular routine that forces your student to get out of bed in the morning and keeps them busy throughout the day is important to enforcing the idea that normal life is possible after suicide.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24/7: 1-800-273-8255

Grief Over the Death of a Loved One

Twenty-five percent of college students lose a family member while in school, most commonly a grandparent. Twenty-one percent lose a friend.

When a family member, friend, mentor or other loved one dies, your student will go through stages of grief. These are often a bit different than those related to grief over suicide.

Remember that this may be the first time your student has ever experienced the loss of a loved one close to them. Denial is a common response — students might suppress their emotions and act like they’re fine, even though they’re struggling. And denial can be more common in males.

Expressing their feelings is an important way for students to work through their grief. The best thing we can do as parents is be the person they choose to talk to.

Call your student regularly to check in and ask how they’re coping. Celebrate the wonderful things about the person they’ve lost. Make remembering that person a happy practice.

You don’t have to ask your student directly about their loss every time you call. Having someone to talk to about more ordinary things can be cathartic, too. Talking to a counselor or joining a grief and loss group is a good idea for any student who's struggling to process and articulate their emotions. Hearing others who’ve experienced loss tell their stories may help open your student up.

Finally, encourage your student to return to normal life as soon as they’re ready. Similar to recovering from grief over a suicide, help them to establish a healthy lifestyle and a productive routine with time for friends and fun.

Balancing School and Grief

No matter the source of your student’s grief, there are some things they should do as soon as possible:

Inform their professors
  • Depending on how much time your student needs in the aftermath of a traumatic event, their professors will work with them to make sure they don’t suffer academically.
  • An email to each teacher or to the Dean of Students should be sufficient.
  • Keep in mind, though, that their school may only allow excused absences for the death of immediate family members, not cousins, uncles and aunts, or friends. 
Work with a mental health professional
  • Even if your student says they're fine, and even if you think they are fine, they probably could benefit from spending time with a counselor or grief group.
  • Look up the campus health resources offered at their school and encourage them to make an appointment. Keep in mind that, because of FERPA and HIPAA, your student needs to make and manage their own health appointments, but offices on campus (including the counseling center and Dean of Students) can receive information from a concerned parent.
Return to campus and class as soon as possible
  • While time for grief is important, the longer your student waits to return to college, the more difficult returning will be.
  • They will fall behind on school work and may have to retake courses.
  • Classes, studying, and homework can provide the sense of normalcy they need to accept the source of their grief and move on with their lives.

When our student returns to school, remember that they still need your support. They’re likely to continue to struggle with grief management and stress.

Communication between parents and college students is a vital tool in grief recovery. You can be there for them emotionally, even if they’re going to school on the other side of the country.

Read our guide for how to support your student’s mental health from a distance >

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