On the day before my son was to begin classes for the Fall Semester of his freshman year, one of his best friends committed suicide on campus in a very public way.
At a time when most students were dealing with concerns about settling into their dorms, making new friends, starting new classes, and getting accustomed to college life, my son and his friends were suddenly faced with the most tragic event of their young lives. This may seem like an unlikely and unusual circumstance, but here are some sobering statistics: College campuses average more than 1,000 suicides per year. It is also estimated that approximately 1,800 college-age people die from alcohol-related causes each year.
When a college student loses a friend, whether it be to suicide, an accident, or an illness, for many of these young adults this will be the first time they have been faced with death. They may have lost an old or sick relative who was “expected” to die, but the death of a peer and a friend is a much different thing to process. The stress of learning to grieve on top of all of the “normal” college stressors could easily become too much to bear for any student, so we were grateful when my son’s university made some wonderful resources available to the grieving students. If your child is grieving a loss like this, you should check with several departments to see what kind of support they can provide:
• Residence Life/Housing. If the deceased lived on campus, it is likely that the student life office will organize a meeting right away for those who lived with and near the deceased. This meeting proved to be immensely important to my son and his friends, as it allowed them a place to gather and get information and support at the beginning of their grieving process.
• As soon as the word of Jack’s death became public, they organized a group meeting in his dorm. Although I think initially this meeting was meant to be small and informational in nature, through word of mouth and social media outlets, the group meeting grew into a large grief counseling session in which the students were allowed and encouraged to speak, to cry, to ask questions. I will be forever grateful that Penn State was flexible enough to allow this meeting to be what the kids needed it to be. It was immensely important for them as a starting point in their grieving process.
• Health Center. In the residence life meeting, students were told about the psychological services office available on campus. Clinicians were aware of the situation and were available right away to accommodate any affected students who wanted to talk to them. Kids who needed more were referred to local mental health professionals in town.
• Academic Advisors. My son’s academic advisor was extremely empathetic and helpful during this time. He made himself readily available, helped my son to communicate with professors about the issues he was facing, and advised my son to consider lightening his course load for the fall semester, which turned out to be the right choice for him.
In addition to the resources the university may provide, here are some tips based on my own experiences as a parent of a grieving college student:
• Reassure your student that the initial shock and sadness will eventually subside and life will someday feel “normal” again. That does not mean their friend is forgotten, it just means that life must go on.
• Talk, talk, talk. Talk about how they are feeling, talk about the deceased, talk about how others are dealing with things. Don’t stop talking. (Or more importantly: Listening!)
• Recognize that everyone grieves differently. Some withdraw and have trouble focusing. Some do better by getting on with a routine and throwing themselves into school and other activities. Watch for signs of trouble, though, like self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs, and symptoms of depression.
• Take care of yourself. Regardless of whether you knew the deceased, this will be a hard time for you, too. It is really painful to watch your child grieve. Even two years after the fact, writing this article is bringing up all kinds of tears and emotions for me as I remember those difficult days. You may want to seek advice from a professional grief counselor, as well.
• Prepare your student for what to expect at a funeral or a viewing. This will be a new experience for many students, and they will be anxious about everything from seeing their friend in a casket to how to appropriately greet his or her family.
• Encourage your student to find a way to commemorate their lost loved one. My son got a small tattoo of his friend’s initials on his arm. A tattoo was not something we were ever willing to embrace before that, but it was important to my son and this seemed an appropriate gesture. Other friends participate in the Out of the Darkness Walk in Jack’s memory, or donate to suicide prevention causes.
• Encourage your student to reach out to the parents of their friend to share memories and/or just to let them know how much their child meant to them. I’ve been told that the surviving parents often feel like a piece of their child lives on in the friends who knew him or her best, and despite their grief, contact with these friends is often something that means the world to them. This can even benefit your student, as the feeling of helping to relieve someone else’s grief actually can help lessen their own.
• Be patient with your child and recognize that this can be a profoundly life-changing event for them. As a result of his grief, my son was not able to throw himself into the freshman experience as he might have otherwise. Rather than exploring new friendships and new experiences, that first year really became all about academic and emotional survival. He is now thriving as a junior, but it was a long journey to this point.
While I would give anything to be able to turn back the clock and find a way to prevent this tragedy from occurring, I am very proud of the way my son has grown into a wiser, more empathetic, and more mature young man as a result of his experience—and I believe much of that is due to the tools that were given to him by his university right from the very start of the grieving process.
Karen Walker has been raising two sons (ages 17 and 21) and a husband for over half of her life. A former content manager and writer for Family Fun PA and NJ, she is now writing for her own blog, Life, In A Nutshell.