Grief and the Loss of a Colgate Student
The greatest tragedy that a college campus faces is the loss of a student life.
For many young people, when a peer dies it is their first experience with losing a loved one. Grief takes many different forms and mourning is an ongoing process with no clear path. The following suggestions are for how to respond depending on who is in the supportive role. In all cases, it is best to provide a nonjudgmental, open, consistent, and reliable approach to helping a son or daughter, friend or student through the grief process.
Responding as a Parent
As parents, we want to protect and care for our children regardless of their age. Watching a son grieve the loss of his friend is a painful experience for parents who want to help alleviate the hurt they witness. It is important during this time to be clear that you are available for contact with your daughter, perhaps more than your usual routine. Offer to call, Skype, or even plan a visit home or to campus. Checking-in more regularly will allow you to have a sense of how your son is doing.
Gentle reminders for self care can help you to understand whether or not your daughter is attending to her own basic needs, such as getting enough to eat, sleeping well, attending classes, exercising and socializing. It is not unusual for these things to fluctuate in response to tragedy, but it is important to notice and to voice your concern if your son is struggling to return to a healthy balance.
Encourage your daughter/son to attend on-campus events (ie — memorial services, meetings to facilitate the grieving process, gatherings of groups to which the deceased student belonged, etc.) so she/he does not need to go through the grieving process alone.
An adult child may not want to process the loss in detail verbally. If you are not concerned about your daughter’s welfare, do not push her to share about what is happening for her internally; being patient, keeping the lines of communication open, and demonstrating your on going support is enough.
Responding as a Student
Losing a peer on campus is deeply painful. Even if you were not intimately tied to the student who died, we are a small community and all share the sadness of the death of a young life. You may be surprised by your own reaction to death and that of your friends. The death of a friend is shocking and often incomprehensible. It may take days for you to begin to understand the loss. If some of the peers you have on campus were closer to the student who died, you may be wondering how to reach out and offer your support.
Although Facebook and e-mail are ways of checking-in with friends when you are not in the same area, sometimes after a tragedy it may feel strange to communicate online. Texting, calling or Skyping are options that allow you to share condolences more directly. You don’t have to worry if you do not know what to say, because no one really knows exactly what to say in the face of tragedy; the best we can do is say we care and are thinking of one another and are available to talk and be together. If you are concerned about yourself or about a friend’s reaction to the death of friend please do not hesitate to reach out for support on campus or to mental health professionals in your area.
The most important thing we can offer our friends is to be with them through the grief; they don’t have to be alone in dealing with the range of difficult emotions. Stop by for a visit, invite your friend to a meal, or include them in your social plans, especially if you see they seem to be withdrawing. Respect their decision to join you, but do extend the offer.
Responding as a Faculty or Staff Member
As a faculty member, losing a student is devastating. You are in a position of both navigating your own grief and experience of loss as well as continuing your duties to support and enrich the lives of the young people in your charge. When your students return to class, you may want to provide time and space to process what is happening for them. If you knew the student who died, you may want to share your own memories and sadness.
There is likely to be a range of responses from your students, as some will feel they are only peripherally affected, while others will be suffering a deep loss. Holding space for the varied reactions and respecting the differences will allow all students to feel accepted and comfortable.
In addition, if you need help processing your own grief reactions, counseling is available to faculty and staff through the Employee Assistance Program at 315-451-3886.
Anticipate that some students may have a more difficult time than others. If needed, consider ways in which you might accommodate these students regarding deadlines for papers, exams, and other course requirements. Expectations for completion of course requirements should not change, but flexibility for the timing of completion might be helpful if/when possible.
Things to Remember
People have different ways of processing grief. Following the loss of a loved one, it is common to experience reactions such as shock, denial, anger, numbness, difficulty concentrating, sadness, guilt, and anxiety. Young adults who have never experienced a significant loss may not know how they begin to comprehend and manage such a tragedy.
The following are common, healthy ways some people cope with grief:
- Spending time alone, in a religious setting, in meditation, or in nature
- Not wanting to verbally share about the loss
- Increased desire to socialize and be with people
- Wanting to tell stories about the person who has died
- Journaling or engaging in other creative pursuits
- Listening to music
- Eating healthy meals
- Getting adequate rest
- Spending time with pets
- Seeking professional counseling services
Although grief reactions vary and people cope with the loss of a significant person in unique ways, it is important to recognize that some methods individuals use to cope are unhealthy and potentially dangerous. Warning signs in grieving individuals that may warrant professional help include the following:
- Increased substance abuse or use
- Physically harming others
- Engaging in self-injurious behaviors
- Talking about suicide and/or expressing an intent to commit suicide