Prof: Universities, students can benefit from focusing on needs of grieving students

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — College students deal with the death of family members more often than believed, and faculty and staff need to be aware of the special support these young adults need, says a Purdue University professor who studies grief.

"Grief is difficult at any life stage, but college students are still developing and learning how to be individuals," said Heather Servaty-Seib, an associate professor of counseling and development who studies grief issues. "At any one time, about 40 percent of college students are grieving the death of a loved one who has died within the last two years. These statistics, which are higher than most people expect, are something campus leaders and instructors need to consider. For example, most universities do not have a formal bereavement leave policy for students.

"As a result, individual instructors construct their own policies, which may not be fair or based on research and are possibly inconsistent with their colleagues' individual policies."

Purdue University recently adopted The Grief Absence Policy for Students to excuse students for funeral leave and give them an opportunity to earn equivalent credit or show evidence they can meet the learning outcomes for missed assignments or assessments. The policy was proposed, drafted and promoted by student officers in the Purdue Student Government. The policy was approved in March, and it will be official this fall.

Servaty-Seib's research indicates that students who lose a family member are likely to have lower GPAs during the semester of the family member's death than students who do not experience such losses.

"Another benefit of universities adopting these policies is that it helps normalize the process and makes grieving or taking time off understandable and acceptable," she says. "These young adults don't want to be different so they don't tell their peers they need support because they are just trying to fit in. Because they are just trying to be normal they also may not seek help."

She also says that students do not view grief as a counseling issue and, therefore, do not often seek counseling. This is something that on-campus resources, such as counseling services or wellness offices, should consider when trying to promote their services. Students also can find help through Students of Ailing Mothers and Fathers, which is available at http://www.studentsofamf.org/

"Grieving students can feel really isolated," she says. "Often, their friends don't know what to say or how to comfort them so they don't talk about it. Grief also can be compounded with separation issues, and that could be affected by geographic distance.

"And losing a parent at this age also could mean significant financial changes for a student, and that student's family role may change. When a parent dies, the student not only loses that parent, but the other parent also will be grieving and may not be able to support the student."

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Heather Servaty-Seib,  765-494-0837, servaty@purdue.edu

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Purdue adopts rare academic leave policy for grieving students