Blake Downing is graduating from the University of Minnesota in May and preparing for graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley. In addition to the stress of graduating, he's shouldering an additional burden: His mom won't be there to see him accept his diploma.
Downing’s mom, Janis, died when he was 14 from Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, a lung disease that causes scar tissue and leads to lung failure. Downing said he knows graduation, a celebratory milestone for many students, will be difficult because he will be thinking about his mom’s absence.
“Grief has such a powerful impact on the rest of my life, not just the fact that I miss my mom,” he said. “There’s just so many other things that it ties into.”
Like Downing, many University students lose someone important to them. However, many students say they feel like they’re the only ones their age living with grief.
Approximately 22 to 30 percent of college undergraduates are likely to have experienced the loss of a loved one within the previous 12 months, according to a survey of almost 1,000 students published in the journal “Mortality.”
Grief is multifaceted. It looks different to everyone, and its severity depends on the strength of the relationship lost, said University faculty member Fiyyaz Karim, who specializes in grief, counseling and post-traumatic stress, among other clinical interests.
“The one big thing is that sometimes college students don’t have that social support, because they’re away from home,” Karim said.
Everyone grieves differently, Karim said. It can be isolating because many students don’t want to talk about it, fearing it will bring down the tone of a situation. And grief is still considered a “taboo subject” in many cultures, he added.
Downing was at his mother’s bedside when she died.
“It was very, very traumatic,” Downing said. “The most traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Weaving grief with college life
University alumna Michaela* was in her second year of her microbiology, immunology and cancer biology program when her father died.
Michaela asked not use her real name in this story because she didn’t want others to think she is using her father’s death as an excuse for her hardships — a fear many who have lost someone say they face, Karim said.
“You definitely feel like something has been taken away from you, and like it’s not fair,” Michaela said. “You kind of feel mad at the world. Honestly, I felt that for a really long time.”
Both Michaela and Downing have participated in the University’s Student Counseling Services' grief groups, which consist of four to eight students who meet weekly with facilitators to talk about their experiences as grieving college students.
Many college-aged students have not experienced a traumatic loss, so the group gives those who have a space to relate to one another, said Sarra Beckham-Chasnoff, a senior supervising psychologist at SCS and a grief group facilitator.
A common theme she has seen in the more than 14 years facilitating University grief groups is many students still have class deadlines to meet, even if they are coping with loss.
SCS added an additional grief group session this semester and has had a waitlist to get into the group for many semesters, Beckham-Chasnoff said. She said older adults who lose a loved one often see flexibility in the workplace and are able to take days off or reduce their workload.
“Students who are in college often still have deadlines that need to be met,” Beckham-Chasnoff said. “They need to be successful by the end of a semester.”
Second-year University student Sydney Cashman’s grandfather, Loran, died around this time last year. She has fond memories of helping him run his ice cream shop, which she said made the loss much more real to her.
Cashman said she isolated herself from her peers after her grandpa’s death because she thought no one else would understand.
“At first, I didn’t even know how to bring it up without being weird or changing the complete mood of the conversation,” she said. “You just never really know how people respond to that kind stuff. … People don’t know what to say.”
Immediately after her grandpa’s death, Cashman went home to Maple Grove, Minnesota, to be with her family. She missed about a week of classes, and when she came back found she had a lot of work to make up with little motivation to do so. She said some of her professors were sympathetic and told her to take as much time as she needed to complete the work she missed, but others were not as understanding.
Students can miss class and assignments to take time to grieve the loss of a loved one immediately after their death, according to University policy.
They must work with their professors to decide when makeup work will be due, and the professor is not required to make accommodations if the makeup work is unreasonable, even if the student has a legitimate reason.
The University’s student bereavement policy is less defined than its policy for faculty, staff and administrative employees. Faculty members can receive up to three days paid leave, depending on the relationship lost.
Bereavement policies are often different for university employees and students. In many cases, the faculty policy is well-defined, which can be indicative of a university’s priorities, said Heather Servaty-Seib, a Purdue University professor who researches college student bereavement policy and grief and loss.
Cashman is a member of Chi Alpha, a Christian community at the University. The group’s support helped her cope with her grandfather’s death, she said.
The University does not give students a specific amount of time off from school because everyone’s loss is unique due to culture, location and more, said Jennifer Reckner, the University’s Office of Undergraduate Education’s chief of staff, in an email.
At Purdue University, the bereavement policy is enforced by the Office of the Dean of Students. Since a University entity notifies professors about a student’s excused absence, faculty take it more seriously, Servaty-Seib said.
“Coming back [to school] just felt like I had so much to do and not enough motivation or anything to do it, because that just wasn’t on my mind at the time,” Cashman said.
Final “stage” of grief? Learning to live with it
For many college students, grief and loss is not something that ends in a few days, as some grieve the loss of a loved one for years. Some experts argue it never ends.
Downing, who will be studying microbiology at Berkeley in the fall, said after processing his mother’s death, he is proud of his grief.
“I feel like I have some wisdom that other people don’t, and I’m able to kind of use that to help other people, I hope,” he said.
Initially after his mom died, Downing said he felt like he had to have perfect grades and be better than everyone else to make his mom proud. He now knows this is not true.
“Anyone who loves you just wants you to be happy,” he said.
Michaela now lives in Seattle, Washington and works at a cancer research center. She said she always wanted to study microbiology, but after her father died from stage IV lung cancer, Michaela gained fervor to study cancer treatments so no one else would go through what she experienced.
The support of her loved ones helped her make it through her most trying times.
“A lot of the time I didn’t even know what I needed from people, but they understood that and they were okay with that. … They were there,” Michaela said.
Cashman is studying business and marketing education and remains active in Chi Alpha. She said being a short drive away from her family and the comfort she felt around her fellow members of Chi Alpha helped her cope with her grandfather’s death.
Even though death and grief is uncomfortable to talk about, Downing said he thinks people just need to listen to those who are hurting.
“People don’t know what to say, [and] I don’t think you can learn what to say,” he said. “That’s what I would tell people: put your listening ears on. Sit there and be there for them.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health problems, consult the following resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
U of M Crisis Line: 612-301-4673
Boynton Mental Health Clinic: 612-624-1444
Student Counseling Services: https://counseling.umn.edu/
If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, call 911.