How to help a grieving student?
April 26, 2013 12:09 PM   Subscribe

I am a (new) professor at a small, rural university. One of my students has had to take an emergency leave due to a death in their family. Aside from assuring them that they need not think about their schoolwork at all, and that we'll work it out when they're ready, is there anything else I can do to support them?

The department I am in is unusually tight knit. Students and faculty pride themselves on our community, but I have no idea what to do in this situation. I'd appreciate any suggestions, from getting a card, to having them over for a meal when they get back. The meal thing would not be unusual for our department, but might be just because I don't know this student that well and I wouldn't want them to feel pressured into something that made them uncomfortable. So, what would be the best way to handle this situation so that the student feels supported, but not overwhelmed?

I will be checking with senior faculty, too, but Metafilter seems to understand grieving in a powerful way, so any stories you can share or advice would be very much appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd appreciate any suggestions

Treat them like an adult and don't make sympathy gestures that are not requested or expected. To be quite honest, I would find it a bit awkward for a professor to make any reference to my personal life beyond the logistical aspects related to coursework.
posted by saeculorum at 12:18 PM on April 26, 2013 [22 favorites]

What saeculorum said. Regardless of the tight-knitness of your school, if you're not personally tight-knit with the student, don't go out of your way. They won't feel any better if they come back to discover they're a carnival attraction.
posted by Etrigan at 12:22 PM on April 26, 2013

Absolutely, express your condolences in a simple email.

Are you in or near finals?

*Assure the student that more time will be given for certain completions if needed. And make sure you understand how you need to go about allowing for that. If the student shows up for the final anyway, do not make any reference in class to what happened. Just let the student get through the final.

Does your school have a counseling services office?

*If the student seems overwhelmed by his or her grief beyond your capabilities and seems to be turning to you or a colleague for more than you can or should give emotionally, remind your student counseling services is available --- if the student is having reactions that appear to be above and beyond usual grief and lasting for longer than we typically expect in these situations, reach out to counseling services yourself and ask them what you can/should do.

Do not leap to counseling services immediately. Just be aware of it as a service so you can use it if you need to.

I work in a university, though I am not a faculty member. I have seen this situation a few times. Everyone reacts differently to grief. I've had faculty who've had students lose someone show up to class the day before and after a funeral. I've had faculty who've had students need to take a few weeks away from school to get their heads together. I've had faculty who've had students who just wanted to get the coursework out of the way so they could then focus on their grief. I've had faculty who've had students who needed to focus on their grief before being able to do their coursework.

Make the offer on the coursework (assuming the dean of students office hasn't already dictated how that should be handled), express simple condolences, and then follow the student's lead.
posted by zizzle at 12:25 PM on April 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm in a similar sort of school, and I probably would leave it at a kind supportive email at first, then a similar one when they get back, or saying those things in person. It's tricky to know whether a person really wants to put more focus on it, or to try to delve into their work and not think about it. If this is during part of a regular semester you could always consider doing something with your whole class or students in your major (if this person is one of them) that might be light-hearted and stress relieving (activity that gets them outside and moving, movie night w/ a major-related movie, etc.).
posted by bizzyb at 12:27 PM on April 26, 2013

A student in one of my classes lost her father at the end of the semester a while back. As a woman almost old enough to be her grandmother I felt comfortable giving her a quick hug, and I let her know that I was there if she needed anything. I also checked with her best pal from our class to make sure she was doing ok. That was about it. Amazingly, in spite of offers of incompletes from every one of her profs. Working hard was her way of dealing with the grief.
posted by mareli at 12:28 PM on April 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

One of the most supportive things that a (very senior to me) colleague did when I had to take some unexpected time off to deal with a death in my family was to respond to my email about being out with "I'm so sorry to hear that. [My family member] was also recently in hospice, and it was very hard to be in that situation but so worthwhile in the end. Please take care of yourself, and don't worry about [work things] while you're out, just focus on being with your family."

Lots of colleagues expressed sympathy or vague offers to "let me know if you need anything," but hers really stands out to me as one of the most authentic expressions of condolence that also opened the door for me to ask for things without feeling weird. At the time she was quite senior to me (heck, she still is), but by sharing her experience she acknowledged us as equals in the personal realm even if we weren't equals in the professional realm. Something like that could go a long way in bringing this student into your "tight knit community," I think.
posted by iminurmefi at 12:35 PM on April 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

It's totally reasonable to say "I'm here if you need to talk" or "Let me know if you need anything."

You should assume that they will not take you up on the offer — partly because of the social distance between teachers and students, and partly because so many people make that sort of offer as an empty gesture and it's hard to know who means it sincerely.

On the other hand, if they do take you up on the offer, you should be prepared to hold up your end of it. (Don't make the offer if you're not.)
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 12:40 PM on April 26, 2013

Oh — one thing you can be proactive about: if they drop off the face of the planet, follow up with them.

This has less to do with grief per se, I guess, and more to do with what it's like to be a student who's missing deadlines and falling behind in class for any reason. It's really easy to end up feeling like "Oh god, I know those first couple absences were excused, but now I'm so far behind that I'd be ashamed even to show up and ask what I've missed, and Professor Whatshername probably totally hates me."

In a situation like that, a message saying "Hi, no hard feelings, I think you deserve credit for the work you've done so far, let's figure out how to make that happen" can go a long way towards reassuring the student that they're allowed to show their face again, and aren't just expected to vanish in disgrace
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 12:49 PM on April 26, 2013 [25 favorites]

One thing you might do is to talk to the dean of students (or whatever the student advocate part of your administration is called) and let them know about the situation. This is the exact situation that the dean of students at the small tight knit school I attended was there to help students with. They would set up extensions, get the right form in the right place for an incomplete, advocate for the student with less cooperative professors, etc.
posted by rockindata at 1:01 PM on April 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

When I lost someone, my boss said to me that she would understand if I suddenly had to leave work without telling anyone and that if I felt particularly sad that I should just leave and that it was OK if I didn't tell her first. It was really kind and empathetic. Perhaps you could tell your student that if (s)he ever has to leave class unexpectedly or can't show up on any given day that you will understand and not ask for an explanation.
posted by parakeetdog at 1:27 PM on April 26, 2013

This has less to do with grief per se, I guess, and more to do with what it's like to be a student who's missing deadlines and falling behind in class for any reason. It's really easy to end up feeling like "Oh god, I know those first couple absences were excused, but now I'm so far behind that I'd be ashamed even to show up and ask what I've missed, and Professor Whatshername probably totally hates me."

This is a real thing, I've had this as a student who had a death in the family.
posted by corb at 1:31 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

This has less to do with grief per se, I guess, and more to do with what it's like to be a student who's missing deadlines and falling behind in class for any reason.

As a student who took an incomplete in a class when my father died a week before finals/term paper deadlines, I second this. The most helpful things my prof could have done for me then:

- confirm that this was an appropriate time to request an extension or INC, and/or explore other options available to a student in this situation.

- making an effort to clarify precisely what that meant in concrete terms. List the new deadlines, any alterations in the assignments (for example, if you'll be giving the student a new version of the exam for make-up, does that affect the study guides or other professor-provided study aids?), and new submission methods, if any, for any papers or tests (put them in your in-box? mail them? email them?)

- following up after a suitable period --- but well before the deadline! --- to remind the student that they still have work outstanding. This is (probably?) above-and-beyond the call of duty on your part, so it is a real kindness.

and most of all:
- not projecting any sentimental or emotional expectations on me unless we had a pre-existing personal relationship in which emotional matters were often and easily discussed.

For example, my advising professor and I had a long pre-existing friendly rapport; when he talked to me at length about my father's death, it was welcome and expected because we already had that mentor/student friendship and because that rapport gave him some ability to read my reactions and back off when I needed him to.

If other profs --- with whom I was cordial and even friendly but not close friends --- had approached me to talk about such a sensitive matter at such a hard time, it would have been a little jarring, and in some cases might have been very unwelcome. "I'm here if you want to talk" leaves the student free to take it or leave it; "Come over for dinner to talk" (or, worse, "Come over for dinner" and an unexpected talk about a sensitive subject) doesn't give the student quite as much leeway.

The most helpful thing any professor could have offered at that time was a practical, clearly presented* structure that allowed me to stop worrying about schoolwork while I dealt with my father's death and then pick up my work again when I was able.

*and patiently presented: someone who's grieving might be a little absent-minded. It might be handy to write down any new deadlines, assignment changes, and other details so they have it clearly outlined in writing, and to keep a copy on file in case they need a back-up.
posted by Elsa at 1:35 PM on April 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's not quite the same, but I had to skip a final once because I had a brutal sinus infection. I went to class, told him I was going to the clinic right then. He took one look at me, took several steps back lest he catch my plague, and said to talk to him the first week of the next semester and arrange to take the test within the first month. I was so fever-addled (and it was the last day of the semester before the holidays) that being given a distinct plan was much better than telling me something vague I'd have to think too hard about.

Provide a plan. It's a very kind thing to do. You can revisit and change it later if the student needs more time or assistance.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:45 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Norms around funeral services may be different where you are, but when a student in our department lost a family member, a couple of us who who currently or recently had this student in class went to the wake. We chatted for a few minutes and then left, but our student seemed to appreciate that we made the effort. It seemed like the right thing to do this time, but I've had other students that I didn't know as well go through the same thing, and didn't go to the wake.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 1:46 PM on April 26, 2013

I experienced the very traumatic loss of my best friend and her boyfriend to a car accident when I was a junior in college. I was an uninjured passenger in the same car accident, but mentally, I was a wreck. A few weeks later, I was overwhelmed with schoolwork. I went to a professor a few days before a paper was due, explained the situation, and requested a few days extra time to work on my paper.

With great compassion, the professor helped talk me through the one lame idea I brought to the table. He helped me flesh out my outline and thesis. He then suggested kindly that a two-day extension might not help as much as I had hoped, that I had a good idea, and that simply writing the paper would probably be better for me than putting it off for two more days. I left without the extension, went home, and wrote an adequate paper. I had his support, and I think he was right that I needed to just push through.

Although this scenario probably won't be true for everyone, it was right for me, and I never really forgot this experience. At the time, everyone around me was sort of treating me with kid gloves, based on their horror in imagining the situation. This prof took the time to give me some help, and gently suggest that I was not a broken person, but that I was up to the academic challenges ahead. That in fact, the academic challenge would be good for me. I'll never forget that conversation or the trust that he placed in me and my abilities, even during tragedy. Afterwards, I wrote him an extended thank you note, acknowledging that his advice to push through ended up becoming advice I followed in many parts of my life.
posted by samthemander at 2:00 PM on April 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yeah, seconding Elsa and NTAT.TAT_. above. I think there are basically two things to do for someone grieving: Provide comfort and solve logistical problems. The latter is the thing you're best positioned to do, and that's the best way to do it.
posted by PMdixon at 2:05 PM on April 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is there any chance you can go to the funeral? My father died when I was at a small rural college and my main professor from my major came to the funeral (home was 1.5 hours by car). That resonated then and now, years later.

Once I came back, he expected me to do the work I needed to do in my classes. I know that he was available to me privately and deadlines could have been moved should it have turned out I needed another break, but he didn't offer it explicitly. Looking back I appreciate that. Nothing maudlin or pathetic, no appropriating my grief (which weirdly, a lot of random people like to do).
posted by headnsouth at 2:12 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm an undergrad student at a medium(?)-sized public university. My step-father died earlier this term and I had to take a week off to attend the funeral out of state. So not on leave, but I did have to notify my professors. Most of them expressed condolences in email, which were fine (and kind). One, who happens to be the dept. chair for my major, made an effort to express sympathy again in person a couple of times after I returned. I was touched. I think anything more than that might have felt a bit awkward, but then I generally feel a bit awkward when attention is being paid to my private life. All of my professors were very understanding about my having to miss class, though I did only miss one exam. It was rescheduled for finals week, and I'm very grateful for that prof's flexibility.
posted by asciident at 2:52 PM on April 26, 2013

My dad died my junior year. I refused offers to postpone the junior general exam scheduled a few weeks after the funeral, only to find when I got back that I was incapable of concentrating. I simply could not study. I had to go back and accept the offer, but no one gave me crap about it, which touched me deeply. I later took it with only a little struggle and graduated without a problem.

So I would maybe tell your student that you know that grief can make simple things seem very hard for a while and that if they find they can't keep up, it's normal and temporary and you will work with them however they need.

That would have helped me to hear. I was bewildered and embarassed by my normally reliable brain shutting down on me.
posted by emjaybee at 8:49 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

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