A College Guide to Grieving a Loved One

My grandmother passed away one month ago. Losing someone in college is often a completely overwhelming experience, as it has been for me. You have a social life and friends and homework, but when dealing with something like this, you have a hard enough time just getting out of bed. You want to talk to your friends about it, but your college friends don’t know your home life. College can be fantastic for many students, but it often happens outside the context of your life off-campus. It feels like another world, and when those two worlds collide, it is hard to know what to do.

Dealing with grief is never easy, and everyone handles it in their own way. While there is no one way to manage the loss of a loved one with school, there are a few things I’ve done that have made it easier for me to process my grief without falling too far behind.

 

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1. Tell your professors. Don’t tell them you’re dealing with a “family/home emergency,” tell them someone died. If they are decent human beings, they’ll understand and be significantly more forgiving then if you leave them in the dark. If possible, keep them informed of your timeline. If you’re going to miss one class, tell them. If you don’t know when you’ll be back at school, tell them that. While you don’t want to have to think about school in such an emotional time, you also don’t want to fall behind because that will make returning to school even harder.

2. Talk to classmates. When my grandmother died, I immediately contacted someone from every one of my classes and asked them to take notes until I returned to class. Just like my professors, I told them exactly why so they knew my situation. I didn’t know how long that would be, and I ended up missing more than I expected, but this request helped me feel calm that I wouldn’t lose vital information that would hurt me when it came time to take exams.

The communication with professors and classmates also helps them see why you may not be available to turn in work, communicate over email or work on projects. For example, as the leader of a group project, I texted both classmates and told them exactly what happened. I then let them know that I would no longer be taking the lead and requested that they manage without me until I returned. While I’m sure it wasn’t easy, I also know they understood my position, and because I was honest, they also didn’t come to me with a million questions and requests because they respected my space.

3. Manage your expectations of yourself.  Despite needing a lot of time to grieve a loved one, you still have to return to school at some point. I came back after one week and it definitely wasn’t enough, and I still am not okay. However, I have also had to limit my own expectations of my work and behavior. I take each assignment and conquer it one at a time. My grandmother died right before midterms, so I had no choice but to take exams and do projects. But I also knew my own capabilities and adjusted my expected grades and participation accordingly. I got them all done, one by one, but there is no question it was overwhelming most of the time.

4. Seek help. When getting work done and dealing with college becomes too much to bear, ask someone for help. This doesn’t necessarily mean adjusting due dates or anything serious, but even asking your roommate to give you a few hours alone to tackle an assignment is helpful. Go to a parent, friend, family member, counselor, mentor – anyone you feel can offer some comfort. Personally, I became so overwhelmed that I couldn’t get any work done. I eventually told my mom how I felt and she said that she would stop asking me to do any extra work (this included helping with my gramma’s belongings) for a week so I could get my projects submitted. While I still helped when I could, asking for help gave me the comfort by knowing I had someone who knew how I felt and was there if I needed. On SMU’s campus, the Office of Student Life and Health Center offer academic help and emotional counseling to provide student-centered support for anyone who needs.

5. Give yourself time. It has been a month since my grandmother died, and it still doesn’t feel real. I have good moments and bad moments, and my bad days still outnumber my good ones. I know it will take time to get through this, and I am okay with that. It took me a full week to come back to school, and I am still making up what I missed, but my communication with professors and friends means they all know why I am struggling with grades and assignments. It is not okay to drop all responsibility, but it is essential to have a healthy sense of what is possible because otherwise, you’ll end up overwhelmed. You have to allow yourself time to grieve, so having a support system in place is essential. It could be the difference between passing the semester and dropping out, or at least it has been for me.

 

Like I said in the beginning, everyone processes grief differently. The central theme here is to seek out help if you need it, in any form that takes. Death is part of the human experience, which means it is something every single person understands; so do not feel alone in this process because I guarantee you there is someone around who knows exactly what you’re going through.