Opinion: Addressing Grief Helps College Students Thrive

By Dr. Kristie Norwood and Heather Nesle

December 31, 2023

The Virginian Pilot

The past few years, particularly in the wake of COVID-19, have underscored the necessity of addressing a wide array of health issues. Prominent among these is grief, which, if not properly managed, can significantly disrupt a student’s educational journey. This is particularly true for students from diverse backgrounds, who often face compounding challenges such as cultural stigmatization and lack of access to quality care.

Regrettably, people of color frequently bear the heaviest burden during public health emergencies, which could manifest as the loss of a loved one or the devastation of a home, leaving many wrestling with grief. Reports from the Mayo Clinic [mayoclinic.org] confirm that these communities are affected disproportionately during crises such as Hurricane Katrina and the COVID-19 pandemic. These crises, in combination with systemic challenges, can profoundly impact social mobility and the higher education aspirations of diverse youth.

According to an article from NBC News and The Hechinger Report [nbcnews.com], white students at public colleges are 150% more likely to graduate than Black students and 60% more likely than Latino students. This disparity is attributed to factors such as racial discrimination [cnn.com], high education costs and numerous external responsibilities, according to a new Lumina Foundation-Gallup 2023 State of Higher Education study [cnn.com].

In response to these challenges, it is crucial that higher education institutions recognize and address grief as a significant health issue. This requires providing comprehensive support to students, especially those from underserved communities, to ensure minimal disruption to their academic journey when adversity strikes.

A commendable initiative in this regard is the establishment of a student bereavement fund at Hampton University. Funded by a grant from the New York Life Foundation, this fund provides financial support for students who have experienced the death of a loved one. This crucial initiative addresses the mental and financial burden of bereavement, ensuring continuity in the students’ higher education pursuits.

Institutions of higher learning must prioritize offerings that assist students in coping with the emotional challenges that accompany grief. This includes workshops connecting students and faculty with grief experts, linking them to resources across campus, and providing a supportive space to express their feelings.

Moreover, grants facilitate the identification of students who might otherwise be overlooked, offering proactive, compassionate outreach and culturally competent care.

Effectively aiding students on their journey through grief necessitates a holistic and proactive approach from educational institutions. It’s crucial not to make assumptions about the adequacy of existing support systems and to recognize the common occurrence of delayed onset grief. The grieving process is intricate and can manifest long after the triggering event.

It’s also necessary to broaden the scope of grief and bereavement training beyond just campus mental health professionals. Such training should encompass faculty and staff across various departments, ensuring that everyone in the institution is prepared to assist students grappling with grief.

Additionally, it’s essential to carry out ongoing assessments, facilitate discussions, and normalize student and faculty experiences of grief. Such open dialogue can simplify the process of seeking help and navigating grief for those affected.

Lastly, the implementation of bereavement excusal policies offers needed flexibility and support during difficult times, enabling students to take the necessary time to process their grief without it adversely affecting their academic progress.

As a nation contending with disparities in health care and education, it is vital that we invest in resources and training related to grief and bereavement. This investment in “Total Student Care” will allow us to cultivate a more inclusive environment for our future leaders.

Grief is a long-term process that extends beyond the conclusion of a funeral. Recognizing it as a significant health issue is essential for helping students navigate this challenging life event without it negatively impacting their academic progress. The framework built by Hampton University and the New York Life Foundation serves as a promising model for other institutions seeking to support grieving students.

Dr. Kristie Norwood is the director of the Student Counseling Center at Hampton University. Heather Nesle is president of the New York Life Foundation, the charitable foundation created by New York Life Insurance Company.