Students and faculty reflect on grieving in an academic setting

A 2021 study published in the International Dialogues on Education found that 60% of college students experience at least one loss during their academic career. Addressing academic obligations on top of basic needs can become overwhelming.

“The psychological response to grief is profound enough to have an impact on someone’s life in all areas,” said Tal Yonai, Associate Director of Counseling Services.

Whether bereaved students complete their courses can depend on the leeway given by professors.

Associate professor of environmental science Dr. Eric Wiener described his strategy. “Essentially it’s three things. Being supportive, encouraging them to use the college resources… and then being accommodating in whatever is needed. Usually, it could mean an incomplete, or it could just mean allowing them to hand in an assignment at a later date,” he said.

Students may avoid asking for accommodations out of pressure to maintain their normal level of productivity. “It was pretty rough,” senior Eron Eden said about losing his grandmother. “You don’t really get a lot of time to deal with it properly when you’ve got classes going on, so you kind of put it aside.”

Eden’s loss came during the COVID-19 pandemic, and he felt obligated to attend the field class held the same day as it was the only in-person course requirement of the semester. Eden refrained from reaching out to professors or Counseling Services and focused on his work, switching majors from computer science to environmental science.

“I just kept pushing because I knew she would want me to… One of the last things I remember talking to her about was my major. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it, but she seemed pretty excited about it,” he said. “I used it as motivation to continue.”

The atmosphere of urgency and obligation in academic settings can also impact faculty and staff when they experience loss. Wiener recalled his peers and superiors supported him in taking time to grieve after his mother passed during the previous spring semester, but he only canceled one class. 

“I personally felt a lot of responsibility to my students, to my classes,” he said. “Maybe I wanted to take a month off and really just grieve, and I didn’t feel that was an option.”

Bereaved parties may become self-reliant to the point of personal detriment. One-third of grieving college students do not complete their sophomore year.

Senior Karolyn Garcia experienced two losses during her sophomore year of college at Stockton, a former high school classmate and her stepmother’s mother. Garcia left midway through the fall semester. “I definitely struggled academically because of it,” she said.

Garcia felt guilt over her reaction to her former classmate’s death. “Sometimes I don’t think it was valid to react how I did, emotionally, because… I didn’t know them personally,” she said.

Disenfranchised grief stems from a loss that is not a typically socially acceptable cause of bereavement. Examples include losing a pet, experiencing the end of a relationship or losing someone to a socially stigmatized cause such as suicide.

“There are social expectations, social norms about what people could be grieving about, especially if the extent of the grief is significant,” Yonai said. “There may be a sense of shame or embarrassment around one’s own grief and concerns around social stigma connected to that grief.”

Junior Zofia Myszko ended a long-term relationship during her previous fall semester. “It definitely feels like a death… Because that person all of a sudden is gone, that connection is cut, so you have all of this space now and this future and you don’t know what to do with it,” she said.

Transitioning to healthier coping mechanisms when dealing with grief can be challenging, but she found that music helped her self-regulate after a week of not eating or sleeping. “It really helped me process my emotions,” she said.

Garcia benefited from discussing her losses in therapy. “It felt productive to actually talk about it. I hate that it’s really basic, just talking about it, but… I recommend it.”

Yonai encourages grieving students to utilize the free resources at Counseling Services and to reach out to others.

“It can be anyone. An advisor, a professor, a friend… Really it’s just important to be able to identify someone they can turn to for support, whoever that person is,” he said.


Featured photo courtesy of Andrew-Neel, Pexels