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Experiencing death in college: Grieving students need resources too

Courtesy+of+Amber+Montgomery
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Experiencing death in college: Grieving students need resources too

Courtesy of Amber Montgomery

Courtesy of Amber Montgomery

Courtesy of Amber Montgomery

Courtesy of Amber Montgomery

By Amber Montgomery | Opinions Editor

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Many people woke up this past Nov. 9 feeling like they had entered an alternate reality — Donald Trump’s fresh presidential win elicited emotional responses in the form of shock and panic.

But I woke up that morning at 6 a.m. to a ringing phone and a different kind of crisis. My mom’s unsteady voice on the line told me she was sorry, that my dad’s condition had worsened and that I needed to come home. I made a cup of coffee, packed some clothes — mindful to grab my black dress — and hopped in the car on a foggy Pittsburgh morning. It wasn’t until I crossed the Maryland border that I bothered to turn on the radio and discovered the identity of our next President.

My dad was sick for a long time before that day, battling with chronic kidney and liver disease for years, but the phone call was still sudden and unexpected. And by the time I made it to the hospital, my family had already decided it was time to bring dad home and let nature run its course.

After a week of saying goodbye, three days of services, and some time to help my mother adjust after the loss, I was back at school a few days before the Thanksgiving break. Although it seemed like ages, I was only gone from campus for about a week and a half. My professors and bosses granted me the time I needed to be away, but after I returned, I was surprised at how quickly I was expected to return to normal. And I was disheartened to see the lack of support, comfort and understanding visibly available to students who are grieving.  

It’s not anyone’s fault specifically but my experience does raise an important notion about how deeply uncomfortable we are with death and grief, so much so that we often choose to avoid and ignore it rather than talk about it — something I’m guilty of as well.

Between 22 and 30 percent of college students have experienced the loss of a family member or close friend over the last year, according to statistics from Actively Moving Forward, an organization that supports young adults who are grieving. At Pitt, that means between 3,893 and 5,308 undergraduates are dealing with grief and loss right now. Pitt offers help to these students mainly through the Counseling Center, addressing the psychological needs of the bereaved but offering little extensive support.

“Students experiencing the grief and loss of a loved one are encouraged to access the Counseling Center’s services,” said Ed Michaels, director of the Counseling Center. “The Center offers individual counseling and a support group specific to issues related to grief and loss.”

While commendable first strides, it’s well-known around campus that appointments with the Center are hard to come by. Students often wait more than a month after their initial call to be seen by a counselor. And with the high number of grieving students, the long wait times and only one support group — called Coping with Grief — at the Center intended to help upwards of three thousand potentially bereaved students just isn’t enough care.

Outside of the mental aspects of death, 8.6 percent of those grieving students are likely to suffer academically, according to AMF. But Pitt offers no guidelines for excused absences due to death of a family member.

“Pitt does not have an official bereavement leave policy for students,” said Michaels. Instead, it’s up to the student to negotiate with advisors and professors about how they can make up the work they missed or fell behind in.

While my advisor was helpful in explaining this process to me, and most of my professors encouraged me to stay home as long as I needed, the reality when I returned to campus was less forgiving. Most of my professors gave me extra time to complete the work I’d missed over the two weeks I was gone, but with only weeks left in the semester and finals swiftly approaching, the make-up work was a daunting task, my focus and concentration noticeably drifted and my grades took a hit.

This lack of bereavement policy and procedure affects more than just making up work in the aftermath of the death of a loved one. My dad was sick for a long time before he passed and I took as many opportunities as I could, while juggling school and work, to go home and be with him and my family. Looking back, I could have — and maybe should have — taken a semester off to stay home.

But I didn’t because school and my life here seemed like a priority, and I didn’t know taking time off was even an option. College often takes precedent over other aspects of life for four years  — and rightfully so — but we don’t always need to make our studies the be-all end-all of our time here. It’s okay to take time away, and that time is something the University should make sure students know is available.

We’ve come a long way in ensuring colleges offer proper outlets for students who are victims of sexual assault or in need of mental health treatment — both of which are extremely important resources to have. But people have worked for years to emphasize the importance of sexual assault awareness, and we should be doing the same with grief among college students.

It’s not that I expected a professor to let me turn in the elegy I’d written to replace a term paper, but I was surprised at how little concern my professors showed. When I came into office hours to talk about what I missed, one of my professors didn’t acknowledge the reason I was gone but preferred to tell me about his rough, exhausting semester.

And even fewer of my friends asked how I was doing or reached out, probably out of fear and worry they’d say the wrong thing. What was probably intended to spare my feelings instead made me feel like I was weak and wrong to be struggling.

So instead of opening up about my dad’s death, I hid it and acted like everything was normal. I took care of my grief by myself. I retreated from my housemates and into my room more. I told my friends I was too busy or too tired when they wanted to hang out — because you can’t really tell people you aren’t going to dinner because you’re too busy staring at the wall in silence all night or that you’d rather sit around in old sweatshirts watching your dad’s favorite movies instead of going to the bar. And no one really questioned me.

When you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, it can only exacerbate the stress and uncertainty of college life. And it’s a never-ending cycle. We’re uncomfortable with death and grief because we never talk about them, even though dying is perhaps the most inevitable aspect of life.

We — as friends, students, teachers — should be more willing to acknowledge death and grieving. And we — as a university — should be offering more extensive services to help our students deal with loss and grief. We will be forced to deal with loss eventually, so we might as well learn to deal with it now and do so together.

Amber is the Opinions Editor at The Pitt News. She primarily writes on gender and politics.

Write to Amber at aem98@pitt.edu.

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Experiencing death in college: Grieving students need resources too