My sister called as I hovered over the “Submit” button.
It was the day after Mother’s Day, and I was purchasing an Amtrak ticket to St. Louis to see my grandparents. My family used to make the drive from Minnesota to Missouri to see them twice a year, but between the pandemic and scheduling conflicts as my siblings and I got older, it had been several years since my last visit. So when my dad told us that my grandma wasn’t doing well, I knew I should go.
Even though courses were virtual, I was on the fence. With class and homework, travel timing would be difficult. But come Monday morning, I had decided to meet my family in Missouri the next day.
Then my sister called.
My grandma had died that morning.
My sister was already en route to Missouri with my parents and my other sister, but now I was adrift again. Could I justify missing school now that I had lost my chance to say goodbye?
After agonizing over the decision for the afternoon, I booked a ticket for the following day. And as my train pulled into Gateway Station, I knew I had made the right choice. Still, if classes hadn’t been on Zoom, I don’t think I would have gone. I didn’t want to jeopardize my academics.
The pressures of college life — academics, living away from home and varying access to support — spell unique challenges for students when they experience the death of a loved one.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of College Student Development estimates that 30-36% college students have lost a friend or family member in the past year. And, by the end of college, nearly two-thirds of students will have experienced at least one such loss, the authors write.
At Northwestern, grieving students receive varying levels of support and often find themselves caught in the constant forward motion of college life. Those who talk about their grief may prefer to do so with friends rather than reaching out to professors, administrators or counselors. Others, without a broader awareness of grief on campus or University resources, are left feeling isolated and struggling to process their grief.
When my grandma died, it was the middle of Spring Quarter, close enough to finals that it felt like I wouldn’t catch up if I took a break or slowed down.
I missed only one class that week. I logged into the rest from the pullout couch in the living room of my family’s Airbnb, which was also serving as my bed. Afraid to lose participation points, I kept my camera on.
That academic pressure seems to be omnipresent.
Weinberg third-year Ben Swedberg also felt the need to keep working after he lost a high school friend to cancer during his first year at Northwestern. He went home to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to be with his family and attend the funeral, but was back on campus the next week, attending classes and practicing with his mock trial team.
Swedberg says his classes were often a welcome distraction. However, looking back, he believes that although he wasn’t “miserable,” throwing himself into his work may not have been the healthiest decision. He describes his actions as keeping with a Northwestern culture where students are expected to continue working no matter what, which he says “doesn’t leave a lot of room for grief.”
“Grieving can take months, but you don’t have months,” Swedberg says. “You have a couple days at best, depending on your professor.”
30-36%college students have lost a friend or family member in the past year.
Journal of College Student Development
The perpetual busyness of college life makes it difficult for students to find moments to rest. Medill third-year Vaibhavi Hemasundar was a peer adviser (PA) during Wildcat Welcome 2021. One morning a couple days into the week, Hemasundar was about to leave her apartment when her mom called with the news that her grandfather had passed away.
“My first instinct was just like, ‘Okay, I have to meet with my students, and I will cry about it later,’” Hemasundar says.
Conscious of her tendency to throw herself into work as a distraction from her feelings, Hemasundar stopped herself and called a friend. They agreed she should take time and process what was happening rather than rushing into another hectic day.
Hemasundar did take some time for herself, but she felt a responsibility to her students and co-PA, so she didn’t withdraw completely. She spoke with higher-ups and found a way to be a part-time PA so she could make more time for herself, but continued assisting throughout the week with activities and discussions.
“For the rest of that week, I was having to assess on literally a minute-by-minute basis, like ‘How am I feeling about this?’” she says.
Because classes began immediately after Wildcat Welcome ended, Hemasundar didn’t have time to check in with herself once the orientation was over. She stayed busy and didn’t get the time she needed to process what she was going through. Her grades began to worsen, and she struggled to stay afloat.
Still, Hemasundar didn’t reach out to her professors.
“It just felt like I’d be like, ‘My grandfather died,’ and they would be like, ‘A lot of people are dying right now because of COVID.’ I didn’t feel comfortable bringing it up, and so I just tried to struggle my way through it,” she says.
For students who do decide to reach out, the results are mixed.
Weinberg fourth-year Kiana Staples lost her dad during Spring Break in 2020. She had feared she would be in Evanston when he died and not have a chance to say goodbye, so she was thankful to be home in Pennsylvania when it happened.
Being home with her mother, brother and boyfriend gave Staples a close support system as she grieved her father. Still, she wasn’t in an emotional state where she could fully engage in her academics. During this time, Staples found her professors very accommodating.
“They did not ask me for any proof. They did not make any suggestion [that] possibly it was not true or anything,” Staples says. “They just heard me say that my father had passed away, and everybody very immediately showed me a lot of compassion.”
Staples’ professors extended deadlines, allowed her to turn her camera off during classes and set up alternate ways to participate. Even the following Fall Quarter, they worked to accommodate her needs.
“They were all completely concerned about my wellbeing all the time,” she says.
However, some professors are less understanding.
Weinberg second-year Aaron Klobnak’s grandpa died in the middle of Winter Quarter last year. He was at his home in central Illinois that weekend, but he still chose to return to campus the same day he received the news. Toward the end of the week, he reached out to his professors to explain the situation.
One of his professors was “very sweet” and understanding, he says.
While the chemistry department required Klobnak to send his grandpa’s obituary for proof, he says his professor acknowledged “how awful that is” and apologized for the request.
“We had a few emails going back and forth about it, which I really respected,” Klobnak says.
However, in another chemistry class, despite Klobnak’s note and submission of proof of his grandpa’s death, he was given zeros on two assignments he missed.
“I was literally at my grandpa’s funeral when they emailed me saying, ‘We don’t allow extensions for any reason,’” he says.
The professor also didn’t let Klobnak make up an exam he missed while traveling to his grandpa’s funeral.
“They literally acted like it was business as usual,” he says. “I really just needed them to understand what was actually going through my head, like it was crazy.”
As time passed, Klobnak felt what academic support he did have — mostly offers of help on homework from friends — taper off. But he was still struggling.
“People stop helping you, and then it starts to even it feels even worse because you start beating yourself up for not being able to do it yourself,” he says.
Klobnak stopped turning in his chemistry assignments and pushed his schoolwork to the side for the rest of the quarter, narrowly passing his classes with the work he had previously done.
“I just said, ‘This quarter is going in the garbage,’” Klobnak says. “‘We’ll restart next quarter.’”
“I was literally at my grandpa’s funeral when they emailed me saying, ‘We don’t allow extensions for any reason.’”
Weinberg second-year Aaron Klobnak
Kaitlin Roberts-Cisneroz, a licensed social worker in Texas, wrote her master’s thesis about college students experiencing grief after losing a friend during her undergraduate studies. While her school held a vigil and offered counseling to students, she says they didn’t offer guidance on “how a college student grieves on top of 18 hours of studying.”
In the wake of her friend’s death, Roberts-Cisneroz experienced difficulties trying to complete her coursework.
“I very vividly remember going to class right after it happened and feeling like, ‘I can’t even think straight. How am I supposed to take this final when I don’t even know how to spell my name right now?’” she says.
Because being open with professors about struggles isn’t always easy or possible, Roberts-Cisneroz believes there need to be policies in place that address the loss of a loved one, such as an allotted amount of time for students to pause their academic work to grieve.
Roberts-Cisneroz says it’s important that universities offer support as students grieve and have an open conversation about what assistance students need.
“Death is inevitable, so we have to learn to support one another and how to learn more about grief,” she says.
When I left for St. Louis last May after my grandma’s death, I didn’t tell anyone at Northwestern. It was early afternoon, and most people were in class, so the lounges and halls were empty as I walked out of East Fairchild.
While I was in Missouri, I texted with friends, but my messages didn’t indicate where I was or that I was gone at all.
I came back two days later and kept going with the quarter. I told one friend what had happened. Otherwise, I continued like nothing had occurred.
A few weeks later, while having lunch with a close friend, we discovered that we had both lost our grandmas within the same week, but hadn’t mentioned it.
Ever since, I’ve been trying to figure out why I didn’t say anything to the people I was close to.
Part of it may have been the effort of trying to explain the context of my grief to someone who didn’t know my family.
Weinberg alumnus (‘21) Colin Tichvon’s dad died during his fourth year at Northwestern.
Tichvon didn’t see his dad often, so once the practical parts of funeral planning were done, the most defining characteristic of his grief was a lingering emptiness.
“I think it hit me the hardest when graduation came around, and he wasn’t there for it,” Tichvon says. “That was when it really set in that there was a difference in my life that I could now visibly see and emotionally experience, because that was something that I wanted him to be there for.”
Tichvon says one obstacle to discussing how he felt after his dad’s death with anyone other than his closest friends was the background information he had to offer first.
“That was another barrier, I think, to opening up about it, just because it’s, ‘Okay, here’s how I’m feeling, and here’s the 12 years of context that you need to understand how I’m feeling,’” he says.
The feeling of not being understood, combined with living independently from family, can also lead to a sense of isolation for grieving students.
“I felt very lonely,” Klobnak says. “I felt like it was because no one understood except for my family, and they were back home. So it was literally just me deciding for myself, ‘What am I going to do?’”
Swedberg also felt a detachment from others at Northwestern. While he was able to grieve as part of a community in Grand Rapids, when he returned to campus, Swedberg was alone again.
“It was very weird to be here and feel like, ‘How are all your lives still moving?’” he says.
Students can feel alone in coping with grief on campus when there is little discussion about how common it is.
Bienen second-year Fiona Shonik used to FaceTime with her grandma every day. But as her grandma’s health declined in the fall, their calls became shorter and less frequent. The slow transition has helped Shonik cope with her loss in some ways, but she is still working on processing what she wants to remember about her grandma.
Shonik has talked about her grief occasionally with close friends, and during her time at Northwestern, she says she has heard of friends and classmates experiencing loss. Still, she says few were very open about it.
“People kind of just left, and they came back and didn’t talk much about it,” she says. “Maybe it’s about taboo, [but] I don’t think it should be at all. I think people should talk more openly about it just because it’s something that everybody goes through, and maybe we should be taught to talk about grief.”
Northwestern does offer some resources for grieving students. When asked for comment about these resources, Jon Yates, Northwestern’s Assistant Vice President of Communications wrote in an email to NBN that Religious and Spiritual Life and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) will coordinate to offer immediate care and grief support.
Additionally, he wrote that CAPS offers grief support groups “when there is sufficient demand for these services. These groups are designed to support students with ongoing grief and are not well suited for the needs of individuals in the immediate aftermath of a loss.” According to Yates, CAPS is not currently running these groups due to “lack of demand,” and students who are interested in participating in such a group are encouraged to contact CAPS.
“CAPS helps many individuals with grief-related concerns each year, only a small subset of which participate in grief support groups,” Yates wrote via email. “Students who do not want to participate in a grief support group are given other options to address their concerns such as individual therapy or community referral.”
It was very weird to be here and feel like, ‘How are all your lives still moving?’”
Weinberg third-year Ben Swedberg
However, students may be hesitant to reach out to ask for support. Klobnak had reached out to CAPS previously and hadn’t ever heard back. He thought contacting CAPS for help with his grief would be “a waste of my time.” CAPS did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Instead of using resources offered by the University, students often rely on friends. Roberts-Cisneroz says the tendency for students who are grieving to seek support in other students led her to establish a peer-led support group at the college where she was completing her masters degree.
“When we invited these students into the room, they were willing to open up to people that one, were their age; two, were going through the exact same life stresses and three, knew what they were going through and had something in common with them,” she says.
The group was an opportunity for students to talk about their grief and feel a sense of belonging, Roberts-Cisneroz says. It also gave them a space to advise and support each other as they faced situations like needing to reach out to professors for accommodations.
Roberts-Cisneroz says her research into the effects of grief on college students and the resources they need has shown her the importance of the role of university administrations.
“The main thing that I get from [my research] is not being scared to talk as university leadership,” Roberts-Cisneroz says. “Death is inevitable, so having an open conversation with our students and saying, ‘What can we do for you?’”
At Northwestern, Hemasunder and Swedberg say they don’t see a dialogue happening between administration and students about what they need, which presents obstacles for a healthy grieving process.
“I don’t think Northwestern facilitates campus-wide conversations about [grief],” Swedberg says. “And I think on a pretty basic level, that makes it harder to grieve here.”
The lack of student demands for better University resources leads Hemasundar to worry that there are broader underlying issues for the student population.
“The fact that you don’t really hear people being like, ‘Oh yeah, I wish the University provided more support,’ makes me feel like people are just trying to push themselves through it,” Hemasundar says.
Hemasundar had been journaling and meditating often during college, but those habits fell to the wayside as she grieved her grandfather. Instead, she spent most of her time out of her apartment, attending any event she could to stay busy and distract herself. But that soon took a toll on her wellbeing and academics.
Her grief and other circumstances led Hemsundar to complete the end of Fall Quarter virtually from her home in Texas, where she focused on processing. She made her therapy sessions more frequent, and began journaling on a regular basis again.
Unable to see her extended family in India, Hemasundar coped by leaning on her mother.
“I worked through a lot of it by just talking to my mom and hearing her stories about my grandfather and pinning down what exactly I want to remember about him,” she says.
Shonik, also apart from her family in New York, has found solace in “mentally dedicating” her work as a trumpet performance major to her grandma.
“She’s always been the number one cheerleader for me, so I think playing music helps a lot,” Shonik says. “It’s definitely been a good coping mechanism for me. I know there have been a few moments where I’ve started to get a bit emotional while I’m playing.”
Dealing with the death of someone his own age left Swedberg grappling with anxiety and immense existential dread. He found himself unable to invest in school the same way he used to.
Now, Swedberg has largely made peace with his new priorities and plans to graduate early. He sees a therapist and believes he has become better at handling loss. Still, he wishes he had been more compassionate toward himself while he was first processing his grief.
“Grief comes back, and you don’t expect it to because you feel like you’ve been traveling away from grief in a straight line,” he says. “And then all of a sudden, you’re right back at the grief and that’s very disorienting. I didn’t understand that at the time, and I would really be hard on myself.”
Grief can pop out unexpectedly — sometimes long after you think you’re past it. In October, I received a package with Halloween decorations, something my family does for many holidays, and that my grandma, who always had an eye for crafts and design, regularly did. In the box, there was a card signed “Happy Halloween! Love, Grandma & Grandpa ‘N.’” I read it and began to cry.
I’m still not over my grief — and I don’t think I ever completely will be. There’s no day marked as the end when you can shut that off, for me or anyone else I’ve talked to. Like Roberts-Cisneroz says, death is inevitable, and many of us will experience the loss of a loved one during college.
Let’s talk about it.