How To Handle Devastating News When Your Kid is Going to College

Last Spring, our family was on a high. My daughter had been accepted to her dream college with a generous scholarship. The fact that it was in New York while we live in California didn’t bother me. I had gone far away from home when I went to college. I had survived. So had my parents. Besides, the technology available today makes it so much easier to keep in touch now than back in the days that I was in college. And I knew that in the event of dire emergency, I could be at my daughter’s side in 5 hours.

We spent last summer doing the things that most families with pre-college kids do. We were so excited for my daughter’s next great adventure. We consulted lists of “must-haves” for college. We shopped for her dorm room. She texted her roommates. We packed boxes and shipped them across the country to await her arrival in New York. I made plans to accompany her to New York to help her get settled in.

How one family managed devastating news when their daughter was going to college

Then, in mid-August, just a few days before we were scheduled to fly to New York, the rug was pulled out from underneath us. My mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The doctors told us that my mother had six months to live, statistically speaking. She would almost certainly be dead within a year and could die much sooner—especially because she had other health issues. So it was likely that my mother would die sometime during my daughter’s freshman year in college.

Naturally, we were devastated by the news. My mother’s relationship with my daughter was not a typical grandmother-granddaughter relationship. I adopted my daughter as a single parent, and my mother moved in to be my daughter’s granny/nanny while I worked a job that often required brutal hours. In every respect, my mother filled the role of my daughter’s second “parent” and was my daughter’s primary caregiver through most of her childhood. In fact, my daughter referred to my mother and me collectively as her “parents.”

As we started to process my mother’s prognosis, we also had to deal with the practical issue of what this meant for my daughter. The timing of my mother’s diagnosis had put us in a bind. We only had a few days to figure out the best course of action for my daughter. We talked about a gap year so that my daughter could stay at home with grandma. But my mother was insistent that her illness not affect my daughter’s plans. And my daughter was still so excited about starting college. She was beyond ready. Plus, given the short time frame, I think we were all still somewhat in denial about what we were facing.

We collectively made the decision that my daughter would head to college as planned and that I would burn through my stash of frequent flier miles to allow my daughter to return home a few times before Christmas—something that we had not previously planned.

A few days later, my daughter and I flew to New York. We agreed that I would send an email to the dean of students explaining the situation and that I would talk to my daughter’s RA about the situation – mostly to make sure that the RA had my contact information. My daughter would be responsible for telling everyone else and would contact health services about finding mental health support.

The move-in was normal. I teared up when I told the RA what was going on. She was so sweet. She had lost her mother just before she started college, so I felt like I was leaving my daughter in sympathetic hands.

I returned home to California and became a full time caretaker for my mother while my daughter settled into her new routines. She liked college, enjoyed her classes, was making friends, and after shopping around for a while, she found a therapist she liked. But she was struggling to be fully “present” at school when her “parent” was going through a slow, but definite, decline on the other side of the country.

In early October, her college had a long weekend and my daughter flew home. My mother had elected to try chemo to see if her life could be extended, but she was experiencing some nasty side effects. So the situation my daughter returned home to was distressing. My mother’s mind was clear, but she felt terrible and could barely get out of bed.

After a few days with grandma, my daughter returned to school as planned. But the adjustment back to school did not go well. She couldn’t concentrate on her work and had her first-ever full-blown anxiety attack after a quarrel with her roommate. Health services came riding to the rescue. Once she was stabilized, my daughter and the dean of health services started talking about options available to her.

One option available was a medical leave of absence. After talking with the dean, my daughter decided that she wanted to come home. She would be able to return to school when she was ready, and I had purchased tuition insurance, so I would be fully reimbursed for her tuition, room and board.

I’ll admit that I initially had misgivings about her plan to come home. I didn’t share those concerns with my daughter, but behind the scenes, I had my first (and only) full-blown meltdown. I walked the dog through the neighborhood while sobbing on the phone to my brother about the injustice of it all.

After I had aired my rage and grief, it didn’t take me long to come around and see that my daughter’s decision made sense. A few days later, after I arranged for family to stay with my mom, I flew to New York. We met with the school’s administration to sign the paperwork. The administration has, so far, been terrific in every way. Then we packed up my daughter’s belongings, put them in storage, and flew home to California.

The one condition I put on my daughter’s return home was that she had to do something productive with her time. On that front, the gods were kind to us. Within days, my daughter had lined up a job as a production assistant at a local theater – exactly the type of work she would have done if she had planned to take a gap year. So we’ve come to refer to this time as her “gap year.”

Shortly after my daughter returned home, my mother decided to stop treatment and start hospice. A few days after Thanksgiving, my mother died peacefully in her sleep. The end was not unexpected but was unexpectedly sudden. And my daughter and I are both tremendously grateful that my daughter was able to be there at the end.

In retrospect, I now know that having my daughter come home was the best decision she could have made. My daughter was there for my mother’s final days, and now both of us have time to adjust to “the new normal” in our lives. My daughter will stay home until the Fall. She will continue to work at the job she has grown to love, and I will prepare myself for a truly empty nest. We both will meet with our therapists and have time to grieve. And in the Fall, my daughter will return to college with the ability to be “present” there in a way that she previously could not.

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Page Barnes is a slowly recovering lawyer and author of “Your Mom’s Guide to the Hippie Colleges of America” which can be found at her blog, Your Mom’s Guide to Life. Her work has been featured on HuffPost, The National Lampoon, The Belladonna Comedy, Beyond Your Blog, and in her own Medium humor publication, The Haven.

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