What could be worse? You’re in the middle of the semester, and suddenly you find out that someone you know has died. Of course, you will be in shock and very sad. What makes everything more difficult is that at some point you have to make some big decisions about how to deal with this death amid everything going on with school. I hope to offer you some pointers about this, so that if you are hit with the news of a death you are better prepared to manage things. Keep in mind that these are tough issues to discuss:
1) You will likely need to consider your relationship to the deceased. Is it one of your parents, a grandparent, relative, or a friend? The importance of this question is tied to the degree that you feel you are obligated or want to be involved with things like the funeral as well as seeing and comforting others. For example, if one of the parents died you are going to want to leave immediately to go home. The last thing in your mind is school and whether you have some reading to do or need to take an exam. However, for certain relatives or people you know you might not feel as pressed to drop everything. In fact, you might decide that you do not want to attend the funeral, or that you may attend the funeral but plan on returning right away to campus.
2) At some point it would be best to contact your Instructors or someone from your school. With regard to the former, a quick email is probably enough to let your Instructors understand your situation. If you are able to tell them when you might return that is helpful. But, it may be the case that all you can do is tell each of them about the death, and that you will be in touch with them as soon as possible. With regard to contacting a school official, I have had students do this on several occasions. This can be a good strategy if you want to avoid having to contact multiple Instructors. An email to the Dean of Students or another administrator about your situation will make sure that all of your Instructors are informed of you absence from class or any other activities on campus.
3) As crazy as it may seem, you need to be prepared to show documentation of the death. I know, isn’t it bad enough you must deal with the death and now you have to supply a funeral notice or obituary? I agree, and I do not ask this of my own students. However, I have heard of a number of faculty members who in their quest to document all absences require this information from their students. I should add that I have heard about this more in cases of deaths of friends and somewhat distant relatives. Although you might find being asked for proof of the death to be offensive, the academic rules of your school typically allows an Instructor to ask for this information.
4) Related to #3, it would probably be useful for you to find out what are the rules of your school regarding excused absences. For example, your school may only allow an excused absence when there is a death in your immediate family. This would not include certain relatives or other important people in your life, such as friends. I know this sounds unfair, but you will have to do your best to deal with these rules. For example, you will need to talk to each of your Instructors and see where they stand with regard to the rules about excused absences. If an Instructor plays hardball and refuses to excuse you for work you missed (i.e., gives you a 0 on this work), you will have to decide whether to talk to others about your situation (e.g., the Chairperson of your Department, your Dean, the University Ombudsperson). Talking to another person may help you, but be prepared that these others may simply say that the Instructor of a class has final say on grading issues.
5) If you are allowed to make up work because your Instructor excused your absences due to the death, try to deal with this work as soon as possible. I know this may be difficult because your head just isn’t into it. Still, if possible, get this work done so you can get back on track and not fall too far behind. I will add that if you really are having a difficult time getting back to your studies you might considering withdrawing from school for a semester. This would a very difficult decision, but for your own mental health and to avoid receiving low grades because you just were not ready for school after the death a withdrawal may be the best alternative. This course of action would delay you only a bit, and you could come back the next semester stronger than ever. Finding out about this option will likely require you talking to an academic advisor or even the school Registrar.
6) Do not be afraid to seek counseling to help you deal with the grief of losing a loved one. Regardless of who died, you will likely be affected in many ways. The effects may include difficulty in concentrating and sadness. Remember that a person who is aware that they need help in dealing with a difficult situation is showing strength, not weakness. There are likely to be resources on your campus that are available to you as far as helping you deal with this loss. These typically include a counseling center or other mental health professionals. You do not have to deal with your grief alone—others are there in your corner.
In closing, I hope you do not have to face the issue of death while you are in college. If you do, I hope the points I raised above will help you better understand the issues that you will face, and that the impact of this loss will be minimized as far as your college career.
Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.