College students balance academic success with grief, ill parents

August 16, 2012  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Even though losing a loved one or being away from a seriously ill parent is common for college students, many can feel isolated when balancing school and family issues, says a Purdue University professor who specializes in grief and loss issues.

"Many students are not comfortable talking with their peers about grief or family illness because they don't want it to define them, and, as a result, these students are often balancing stress and sadness on their own," says Heather Servaty-Seib, counseling psychologist and an associate professor of educational studies.

Statistics show that 40 percent of college students are grieving a death within the last two years, and the number of students with chronically or terminally ill parents is not tracked. Servaty-Seib's research with grieving college students has indicated that students dealing with grief often struggle academically, particularly during the semester of their death loss.

Whether it's a family death or serious illness, students may have to cope with stresses such as feeling guilty for being away from home or related financial issues connected to a family illness.

"Balancing the role as academic-focused student and the child of someone who is very ill is not easy," Servaty-Seib says. "Often, well-meaning parents don't communicate about the illness or daily problems to their children because they are protecting them. Sick family members often request that the student stay at school and focus on being a student. But then the student is at school worrying. And when the student is home, then they are worried about academic challenges."

Colleges and universities are recognizing the importance of supporting students in these situations through official grief absence policies and student groups. Servaty-Seib says more can be done.

"Purdue is just one of a few schools with a policy that supports students who have a death in the family," she says. "At a large institution, like Purdue, a policy or student group makes a tangible difference for students who are struggling with grief or family illness."

Purdue's policy served 480 students last year by helping them take an official leave of absence for funeral services and making arrangements for missed classes or coursework. The formal absence policy also was an opportunity for the Office of the Dean of Students to offer individual counseling resources to the grieving students, says Lou Ann Hamilton, assistant dean of students. The office also hears from students who need assistance or counseling when they have a parent who is chronically or terminally ill.

"We see many students struggle when a parent is ill," Hamilton says. "They are forced to grow up faster when they need to be home on weekends to help care for a sick parent or younger siblings. It is very hard on them and can affect their success as a student."

Starting this fall, Purdue also is home to one of the few dozen college chapters of Students of Ailing Mothers & Fathers Support Network.

"Every student chapter is unique to its college campus, but in their own way they provide support and help normalize the experience these students are going through," says Servaty-Seib, the group's adviser at Purdue and member of the mental health board of the National Ailing Mothers & Fathers Support Network. "A positive of this group is channeling grief through actions. Taking action, such as organizing a fundraiser, can be powerful for people who don't want or need to talk about their grief. It will be interesting to see how this student-driven group takes shape on campus."

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Sources: Heather Servaty-Seib, 765-494-0837,

Lou Ann Hamilton, 765 494-1252,

Related website:
Purdue's Grief Absence Policy

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