Dealing with grief on college campuses

Ben Lord, M.S. 
Guest Columnist

Sandra Gramling, Ph.D.
Guest Columnist

The recent tragic death of a 19-year-old student at VCU can’t help but send shockwaves through the university community, and our thoughts go out to the family and friends of the young woman who was lost.

The death of a young person in an accident that could have happened to anybody is a sobering reminder that we are not as invulnerable as we think. I am just leaving the developmental stage the experts call emerging adulthood (18-28), a time in life characterized by a great deal of life change and instability, yet a continuing sense of invulnerability.

While this tragedy may increase a sense of being vulnerable, vulnerability may be the impetus for us to slow down, cherish what we have and learn new skills that foster resiliency in ourselves and in friends who are grieving.

Research with older adults (post-emerging adulthood) suggests that most individuals are resilient in the face of harsh realities like death, but it is estimated that 10-20 percent of individuals have difficulty coping with loss of a loved one. Consequences can include depression, symptoms of post-traumatic stress, declining health, disrupted sleep, and even suicide. The experts have not yet studied how college students, who have a lot of extra stress on their plates already as well as unique developmental challenges, may be even more adversely affected by bereavement that is experienced during the college years.

I have been a graduate student here at VCU since 2007, studying grief and bereavement in Dr. Sandra Gramling’s Good Grief Lab. We have learned that about 30 percent of students on a given college campus, including VCU, have experienced the death of someone significant in their lives within the past year. If we include students who have experienced a death within the past two years, the number climbs to 40 percent.

Yet there is shockingly little known about how college students and other emerging adults experience and cope with grief. Most people who live and work on college campuses are unaware of how prevalent bereavement is among young adults.

In our work on college student grief we have had the privilege of discussing these very personal issues directly with students at VCU. A number of themes about loss and grief have emerged during these discussions.

The most common theme seems to be that there is just an overwhelming amount of stress in these students’ lives, to the point where they feel that they have to be so focused on practicalities (grades, bills, travel) that there isn’t much space to deal with the internal, emotional side of the grieving process.

Related to this, many students say that they are uncomfortable leaning on their peer group at the university for support during these trying times. Discussing death and loss almost feels taboo.

For many students, this may be their first close encounter with death, so it can be a very uncomfortable subject, both for the bereaved and for friends and acquaintances who want to help, but fear saying the wrong thing. A dark corollary is that students report a high frequency of turning to alcohol and drugs as coping strategies in the face of grief. Healthier methods of coping, through social support or grief counseling, feel inappropriate or embarrassing.

It is, however, not all doom and gloom.

Most of our students can point to growth experiences that occur in the wake of these tragedies.

But students, please don’t let the advice to take really good care of yourself fall on deaf ears. Prioritize spending time with people who are supportive, getting enough sleep, and eating good meals.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to talk about your grief.

It’s more common than you think. Many students say they feel alone in their grief. Yet 40 percent of the people you are walking by every day know something about what you are going through. Every loss is unique and each person hurts and recovers in their own way. There is a lot of shared wisdom among your peers that might help you just by asking a friend “Have you gone through anything like this?”

For friends who want to help a friend who is grieving our advice is to simply be there for them.  Ask your friend what would be helpful, don’t assume you know.  Be a good listener.  Don’t try to fix things. Don’t offer platitudes.

Finally, if someone close to you has died don’t be afraid to tell your professors or your adviser. Start with a statement like “I’m sure you can recall a time when someone you loved died that’s what I’m going through now.”

Professors, try to be flexible with your grieving students. Sometimes a loss requires time off to tend to properly. Be open to the possibility that a reduced course load might be the best strategy. College is a trying time, and emerging adulthood is a time of change of all types, both positive and negative.

It takes a village, and we all have to work together to carve out the appropriate space for grieving to occur.

One Response to “Dealing with grief on college campuses”

  1. Thank you so much for talking about this incredibly important, yet often overlooked, topic. I really appreciate the part about needing to "carve out the appropriate space for grieving to occur." National Students of AMF Support Network aims to do exactly that. AMF (www.studentsofamf.org) is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to support college students grieving the illness or death of a loved one. AMF organizes peer-led grief support groups on college campuses across the country. For more information about AMF and how to get involved, email kristen@studentsofamf.org.