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Grief, Students, and the University

In American culture, the death of a close loved one like a parent or sibling is often emotionally and physically stressful. Not only can funerals be draining processes, but the mental preparation needed beforehand to plan for a loved one’s death and the strength needed to cope with it afterward can also elicit anxiety. For college students, death becomes even more stressful when school life bombards their grieving process. Although many universities and colleges have set grieving policies for students, many others have yet to implement any forms of support. In an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Caitlin Peterkin discusses how important campus policies and support groups are for students dealing with death. Specifically, she notes the uniqueness of college life and its impact on student bereavement, or what she calls “the silent epidemic.”

(Photo by miss karen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/misbehave/156217484/)

According to statistics, approximately 38 to 50 percent of college students have lost a close relative or friend within the past two years. Unfortunately, because many students do not see grief as a mental health concern, they usually do not seek any form of counseling or help. Grief, however, can negatively affect school activities. In the article, Peterkin quotes sociology professor Heather L. Servaty-Seib, who states, “On college campuses, the focus is so much about fun, growth, learning—it’s high energy. Having a death loss really sets you apart at a time you don’t want to be set apart or be defined by a life event.” Bereavement often causes students to leave school for an extended period and therefore to miss important lectures and deadlines. Additionally, students also begin to do poorly socially because they are unable to keep up with the high energy perpetuated by college life. In order to support students, many schools have created policies that have given students a chance to grieve without negative effects to their academic lives. Some have allowed students to take a leave of absence without penalty provided they have a certificate of death or other medical letters. Other schools have developed policies that mandate professors give make-up work for bereaving students.

Although these policies are definitely necessary, at least to help students in their grieving process by reducing stress, they can also be limiting. For example, many policies only allow excused absences for deaths within the immediate family, and only after a record is provided. But what about the deaths of close friends or important extended family members? Do those deaths count less under these policies? Also, what if universities or colleges lack the appropriate funds to create additional counseling or groups for students? Is the university still responsible for student grief if these resources are not available? Of course, these questions are not meant to justify taking away any bereavement policies in place. Rather, they speak to the inherent obstacles that could prevent schools from implementing them.

For a more in-depth look, click on the following link to Peterkin’s article:


—Tiken Savang