Coping With Loss

One in two college students have lost a loved one in the past two years. This is how they move on.

Grace Davis had just left her first Syracuse University football game when a phone call about her high school boyfriend left her speechless. On September 5, 2009, Matt, whom Grace had been dating for three years, contracted the H1N1 swine flu from his roommates at Miami University in Ohio, only a week after arriving at school for his freshman year. He was fine when Grace last spoke with him. But now he'd become unresponsive and needed an airlift to the hospital.

Within hours, Grace was dressed in a biohazard suit, sitting by Matt's side in a quarantined hospital room. The two had been inseparable since their sophomore year and were known as Mr. and Mrs. Bing by their entire high school, as Matt's sense of humor mirrored Chandler's from Friends. They spent the next few hours talking and, despite his illness, Matt still continued to crack the occasional joke. When time came for him to be put in an induced coma to relieve stress on his body, they both said, "See you soon," never expecting it to be their final goodbye.

After three weeks in a coma, Matt passed away and Grace, a health education and human service policy major, made the difficult decision to resume her freshman year at Syracuse University with a half-empty heart. "I came back right away because I knew if I didn't then, I never would have," she says. "I knew I was never going to move on from Matt's death. No semester, or year, or any amount of time was going to be enough."

College years are commonly considered the best years of someone's life. But for those grieving the death of a loved one, they can be the hardest. According to a 2010 study by Dr. David Balk, a professor at Brooklyn College, nearly two of every three college students have lost a family member or friend within the last 12 months. Half have experienced a loss within the past two years.

"It's important to not dump all bereaved college students into one group and say they all respond the same way, because some recover quickly and others take quite a while," says Balk, who's researched college student bereavement for nearly 30 years.

Academic pressure, being away from home, and insensitivity from professors and friends who can't understand or relate to one's grief can all affect a student's ability to recover. Since many adolescents establish an identity and form meaningful relationships in their college years, loss can cause students to question who they are and what they know about the world.

It is not uncommon for students to experience social isolation and withdrawal as they cope, since they either don't want to talk about their loss or refrain from discussion because it makes their friends uncomfortable. This forces them to camouflage their grief, making it even more difficult to grow and maintain close relationships.

Amanda Drapkin, a sophomore fashion design major, and the youngest of six siblings when she lost her 23-year-old brother, Dustin, in March of her senior year of high school. He unexpectedly passed away due to complications from a vaccine he was given to help minimize inflammation in his throat. Amanda's parents tried to persuade her to stay home instead of returning to her first semester at SU so soon after her brother's death. But Amanda insisted on going, hoping that school would be the distraction she needed.

In addition to social struggles, Phil Meilman, the director of counseling and psychiatric services at Georgetown University, says the loss of a loved one can cause students to lose motivation and have difficulty concentrating, which hinders academic performance. In a majority of cases, a student's grade point average declines during the semester they experience a loss.

In the beginning, Amanda enjoyed meeting new people, but once classes started, the responsibilities became increasingly difficult to handle. She found herself constantly thinking about her brother. Amanda felt unmotivated and indifferent about her own life, causing her to drop classes and put off coursework until the last minute. When one of Amanda's close friends from home took his life toward the end of her first semester, her stress and anxiety levels rose too high. She returned home for the rest of the semester. "Looking back on it, it would have been wiser to deal with my situation at home in an environment I was used to before leaving for college," she says.

Syracuse does not have a formal bereavement policy. Corey Wallack, the director of the counseling center at SU, thinks the university does a good job supporting students through loss. The Office of Student Assistance advocates for students by providing them with absentee notices and coordinating incompletes or leaves of absence, if necessary. Wallack says, "The system functions very well, but a formal bereavement policy is worth exploring to further safeguard students."

Amanda thinks there is alot of room for improvement. Although all of her professors helped as much as they could, the university refused to count her time away after her first semester as an official emergency leave of absence, which brought her GPA down considerably.

Wallack says the first question he asks bereaved students is if they are capable of staying at school and completing courses for the semester. "Students need to ask themselves if they are better off being at home or with friends at school, and there isn't a concrete answer for this," Wallack says. Some students feel more comforted at home, while others, like senior sport and human dynamics major Jordan Josephs, need the escape of college.

The summer after his freshman year at SU, Jordan's brother and his friend of six years died when a tractor-trailer hit their car, creating an explosion that killed them both. Jordan found comfort in returning to school at the end of the summer and distancing himself from the sadness back home. That summer, he also lost his grandfather, his closest family member, and struggled with grieving the deaths of three important people in his life. "It was just good to come back and be with my other friends again," he says. "I still think about both of them often, but I know at some point you need to move on from the sadness."

When it comes to how one copes, Wallack says it's important for students to know that there's not a right way to do it. "You need to do what feels right to you in the moment," he says. "Don't worry about doing what others want or expect."

He suggests talking to at least a couple of trusted friends, since many people turn their grief inward out of the fear of burdening others and feel like they can't understand. Wallack says it's possible to help friends understand just by talking about the loved one and honoring their memory through stories. Dr. Tamina Toray, a professor in the psychology division of Western Oregon University, has found that students who have social support at college are not as negatively affected by grief as those who do not. College students, like the rest of the population, often find formal counseling difficult because of the associated generalizations and the feeling that counselors can't relate.

The counseling center is another vital resource Wallack recommends. But the stigma of seeing a professional discourages students from using its resources, such as the counselors or peer grief group, which had to be canceled this year due to lack of student participation. At first, Grace was opposed to seeing a professional because she couldn't imagine sitting on a couch and trying to explain who Matt was to a complete stranger, but eventually she got past the negative image and says the counseling helped. "I'm a big advocate for talking to someone, but only when you're ready to," Grace says. But she still attributes most of her healing to the incredible support from her friends, some self-therapy, and a trip to Uganda last summer that allowed for some much needed soul searching.

For Amanda, healing came in the form of art. Right after Dustin passed away, she would go to the cemetery, in front of his grave and sketch for hours. Amanda still turns to self-expression to help her through hard times. It reminds her of her brother's creativity, which she admired so much.

Dr. Toray says although it might feel like things will never get better, they ultimately will with the right resources. "We hold memories of these people but we do move on and things do shift when it's time," she says. "Everyone is different in terms of what that time means, but there is less suffering in the future."

Over two years since her final few hours with Matt in the hospital, Grace is finally beginning to listen again to the music that played an important role in their relationship. She still finds herself daydreaming about what Mr. and Mrs. Bing would have been like throughout college. But she keeps Matt alive by living how he did and not stressing over the little things, like he'd taught her since they met. "Matt gave me the biggest gift," Grace says." Now that I look back at it, I just think, 'Life is short, relax like Matt would want you to do.'"