5 Vital Ways to Support Grieving Students as They Return to Campus

If you have been lucky to make it through the global pandemic without losing any family member, friends, or other loved ones to the virus, then you may feel that things are now back to “normal.”

However, for millions of people, normalcy will never return. Many students have lost parents, grandparents, and friends. These losses have markedly changed them, and they will carry their grief with them to campus this fall and throughout their lives.

Although nothing we can do on campus can completely heal students’ grief, there are some ways we can support them through challenging emotions and circumstances. 

As a victim advocate, I often support students utilizing trauma-informed care. And trauma doesn’t solely apply to sexual assault and violence; the loss of a loved one will be traumatic for most students, and thus, trauma-informed care can support them in their grief. Here’s how.

1. Educate yourself on grief & trauma-informed care

Many people are uncomfortable thinking about grief, especially if they have never experienced the loss of someone close to them. But, for many people who have experienced death intimately, grief is often at the forefront of their minds.

If you haven’t experienced grief yourself, then some take time to learn about this complex emotion and its effects.

I recommend reading Bearing the Unbearable by Joanne Cacciatore for a thoughtful exploration into how people experience grief, along with advice for lending your support. Additionally, mortician Caitlin Doughty, who is popular for her “Ask a Mortician” YouTube series, has an amazing video about helping friends through grief.

The death of a loved one is traumatic. So, take some time to read about trauma-informed practices for working with college students specifically. While Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education was developed before the coronavirus pandemic, it has information about how grief can uniquely affect college students.

'Grief is like the ocean; it comes in waves, ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do it learn to swim.' - Vicki Harrison

2. Be flexible

Grief is unpredictable. If you have faced it, you know that waves of sadness can unexpectedly knock you off your feet. To best support grieving students, be as flexible as you can.

If you supervise student staff, let them know that their sick days can apply to caring for their mental health. If you assign due dates for work projects, let students know how they can request an extension, emphasizing that grief will indeed be an acceptable reason. If you advise students in academics or student orgs, know the policies for extending registration deadlines and how to help them finish coursework after the grading deadline. If you have a  student employee whom you suspect may be overwhelmed by grief, let them know that while you value their employment, you’ll understand if they need to take time off to heal. 

It’ll be hard on almost everyone to join the world post-pandemic, and that’s perhaps most true for anyone who has faced the death of a loved one. Let students know that it is ok to focus on their mental health and that (if it’s indeed possible), their campus job or leadership role will be open to them in the future.

3. Listen

If a student feels comfortable enough with you to talk about their loved one(s), it can mean so much to them if you simply listen. Resist the urge to tell the story of a death that’s touched you and, instead, listen fully to theirs.

Often, people are afraid to ask a grieving person about their loved ones. Perhaps you worry that it’ll seem like rubbing salt in a wound. However, your students may welcome the opportunity to share stories about a person whom they miss and is frequently on their mind. If you have a relatively close relationship with the student, they may welcome you asking about their favorite memory with their loved one.

You might start the conversation by asking:

  • “What was one of your favorite things about them?”
  • “Do you have a funny story about them you’d like to share?”
  • “What would they have said about your 4.0 GPA this semester? It’s an amazing accomplishment!”

Check out these tips on how to be a good active listener, especially if it’s an essential skill you’d like to improve upon.

4. Follow their lead

People who are coping with trauma may feel like all their choices have been taken away. They did not choose to lose someone, and they do not get to choose how grief impacts them.

To provide support from a trauma-informed lens, follow the student’s lead. Give them options in each of your interactions together. For example, let them choose where to meet. Maybe they feel best continuing to meet online or would like to grab a coffee instead of coming to your office.  Also, let them choose where to sit when you meet and, whenever possible, give student staff the power to choose work deadlines that work best for them and decide which projects to prioritize.

In addition to giving students power over logistical decisions, follow their lead interpersonally. If, for example, they seem to be struggling to hold their emotions back, let them know you are comfortable sitting with them no matter what emotions they need to express.  If it seems like they need most of the time in your one-on-one to talk about what they are going through,  then go with that.

On the flip side, if a student does not want to talk about their grief, respect that too. Or if a student is telling jokes about their loved one, then it’s ok to join them in laughing. Following their lead is essential.

'We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in all the world: the company of those who have known suffering.' - Helen Keller

5. Don’t use hollow language

You may worry about saying the “wrong” thing to a grieving person. And indeed, there are some statements that, while usually well-intentioned, most students won’t find comforting. For example, don’t say:

  • They are in a better place now.”
  • Everything happens for a reason.”
  • God needed another angel.”
  •  “At least they are not in pain anymore.”

These statements (and statements like them) are usually said with good intentions. But, they are usually not comforting to the grieving person and might stop them from coming to you for support ever again. 

These statements are not helpful because people hearing them will read between the lines of what is not being said. 

They may think:

  • “My dad liked this place just fine! How is being dead better ?!”
  • “There is no reason for tragedy!”
  • “I need my mom! She’s alone now.”
  • “But now everyone is in pain. Healing would have been so much better than death.”

Instead, you should recognize that nothing you can say will change the students’ situation nor completely eliminate their grief.  Instead, you can say things that demonstrate that emphasize your non-judgemental support. 

You might try these:

  • That is horrible. I am so sorry”.
  • It is not fair that you are facing this.”
  • It sounds like they loved you so much. Do you want to share a story about them?”
  • I am here to listen if you’d like.”

Although these statements likely won’t remove any pain, they validate the grieving person’s experience and emotions. They signal that they can turn to you for support on their terms, an important factor in providing trauma-informed care. 

It’s going to be a difficult semester. So many of our community members have faced unexpected hardships in the pandemic, including the death of a loved one. But utilizing a trauma-informed response to grief can help you feel more equipped in responding to those grieving around you. 

How do you plan to support students through grief? Tell us what tips we missed @themoderncampus.

Kacie Otto

About the author: Kacie Otto (she/her) is the Violence Prevention Specialist and Victim Advocate at Marquette University. If she’s not knitting or reading a book about feminism, you might find her at a campsite or in a thrift shop. Learn how we can help get your students involved.