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Janice C. Stapley, Monmouth University
James J. Morecraft, Montclair State University

Janice Stapley.jpgJames Morecraft.jpgCollege student bereavement is a topic that has received relatively little attention in the literature, but college students commonly have to learn how to emotionally regulate while coping with the death of someone close to them (Stapley & Morecraft, 2015).  What happens when college students experience the death of a close friend or family member?  How will the advisor know that the student is grieving and how can academic advisors help college students navigate this normative developmental experience so that it does not have a negative impact on their academic work and personal functioning?

Undergraduate students frequently experience the loss of someone close to them.  In our recent study of 115 traditionally aged undergraduates, half of the sample lost someone close to them within the past year.  For some, it was the loss of a grandparent or other adult relative (25%) and for others it was a close friend (21%) (Stapley & Morecraft, 2015).  Examining grief reactions among college students through the lens of emotion regulation (Gross, & John, 2003), two common strategies for regulating emotions are cognitive appraisal and the suppression of the emotional expression.  In our sample, male students were more likely than female students to suppress their emotions when grieving.  Conversely, female students were more likely to report that they would talk to a close friend when they are bereaved. 

Traditionally aged college students are emerging adults who may not have previously experienced coping with death.  Generally emerging adulthood is characterized as the “age of possibilities” (Arnett, 2007, p. 69), but a central loss during this period might result in instability and a narrowing of possibilities.  Bereaved students may be overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and unable to engage in their normal daily tasks, such as going to class and keeping up with assignments.  This is one of the instances in which class attendance records are very helpful.  Students who have been regularly attending classes and then suddenly disappear may be experiencing emotional difficulties that impact their ability to go to class.

At our university, females report experiencing higher levels of death anxiety than male students.  There also appear to be sex differences in how college students think about how male and females usually emotionally regulate during the grieving process.  Male students are more likely to believe that men are emotionally stronger than women.  The male students in our sample were also more likely than females to agree with the statement “Males should be strong after the loss of a loved one.”  Academic advisors need to be ready to listen and to refer advisees to their counseling center, taking into account that males are less likely to express their feelings but may be experiencing difficulties with a loss that may impact their daily functioning.

For faculty academic advisors, there are challenges to providing optimal student services in the case of bereavement.  Most generally, there is the continued resistance of faculty advisors to the Developmental Advising model that Dickson and McMahon described so clearly in 1991.  Faculty who are pulled in many directions often feel that they don’t have time to do more than offer guidance with scheduling and/or that they do not have the training to do more than help with course selection.  However, a deep advising literature has repeatedly demonstrated that advisors are crucial contacts for referring students for other services to facilitate their academic success.  Anecdotally, the topic of bereavement has been one that has often been viewed with skepticism among college faculty.  Many colleges require students to show printed evidence of having attended a funeral in order to be excused from missing a class.  But for many young people, the work of grieving is not over at the conclusion of the funeral.

There are many variables to consider when trying to determine when a college student will be ready to return to classes and keep up with assignments and whether he or she will need counseling to navigate the bereavement stage.  Obviously, the student’s relationship with the deceased is central, but also whether the student has had any previous experience with death and the student’s overall emotion regulation skills contribute to our understanding of the severity of the situation as well.  Advisors may have insight into the extent of students’ coping skills, based upon their past interactions when students were discussing transition issues.  People are often wary of asking how someone is doing with a recent death, but discussing it directly can help the advisor get a feel for how the student is coping and provide the advisee with the experience of someone listening to his or her feelings, which research has shown is therapeutic in and of itself (Gilbert, 2001).

The transition to college generally taxes students’ emotion regulation skills (Stapley, 2014) and for those who are not as proficient at self-regulation, the addition of a significant loss can be the “last straw” that results in a student taking to his or her dorm room or staying home and failing to participate in normal activities.  One of the best ways to prevent such an occurrence is to have an ongoing relationship with our advisees in which they know that they can reach out to us if they need a referral for special services. 

Whenever possible, advisors should start a meeting with a short “check in” on how things are going in the student’s life.  This practice, consistent with a Developmental Advising model, gives the advisor more insight into the student as an individual.  It also may provide an opening for students to share experiences, such as a recent death, that might impact their class attendance and performance.  One practice in our department is to send out “just checking in” emails several times during the semester.  These might prod a student to reach out to his or her advisor for help in managing a situation before it has escalated.

In summary, what do academic advisors need to know to help students manage these challenging life events so that they don’t have a negative impact on their academic progress?

  • Undergraduate students frequently experience the death of someone close to them.
  • Checking in on how students are doing provides a space for students to share about the events in their lives.
  • Grieving in males may be under identified due to gender differences in grieving behavior.
  • Bereaved students who are having difficulty managing their emotions should be referred to their college counseling center.

Knowing that for many students their first experience with death may come during college, academic advisors can serve a pivotal role in referring students for help with the grieving process, so that both male and female students can develop coping strategies and continue to succeed.  Additionally, academic advisors should keep in mind the sex differences in coping mechanisms and beliefs about emotion suppression during the grieving process when looking for signs of bereavement.  As Kuhn, Gordon, and Webber (2006) pointed out, college students are often experiencing many complicated issues outside of school that may impact their ability to progress towards degree completion.  Advisors can help students succeed by identifying complicated bereavement as one of the triggers for counseling referral. 

Janice C. Stapley
Associate Professor
Department of Psychology, Monmouth University
jstapley@monmouth.edu    

James J. Morecraft
Graduate Student
Department of Psychology, Montclair State University
morecraftj1@mail.montclair.edu

References

Arnett, J. J. (2007). Emerging adulthood: What is it? What is it good for? Child Development Perspectives, 1, 68-73.

Dickson, G. L., & McMahon, T. R. (1991). The Developmental Advising Inventory: A new approach to academic advising. NACADA Journal, 11(1), 34-50.

Gilbert, K. R.  (2001). Introduction:  Why are we interested in emotions?  In K. R. Gilbert (Ed.), The Emotional Nature of Qualitative Research. Boca Raton, FL:  CRC Press.

Gross, J. J., & John, O. P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: Implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 348-362.

Kuhn, T., Gordon, V. N., & Webber, J. (2006).  The advising and counseling continuum: Triggers for referral. NACADA Journal, 26(1), 24-31.

Stapley, J. C. (2014). Music and emotion regulation among emerging adults. In F. R. Spielhagen and P.D. Schwartz (eds.), Adolescence in the 21st Century (pp. 225-238).Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Stapley, J. C. & Morecraft, J. (2015, May). Sex differences in death anxiety and grieving among emerging adults. Poster presented at the American Psychological Association Conference, New York, NY.

Cite this article using APA style as: Stapley, J.C. & Morecraft, J.J. (2015, December). College student bereavement: What advisors need to know. Academic Advising Today, 38(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]

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