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A Parent's Guide: Processing Grief With Your Student

Dear Parent,

Radford University Mental Health Response Team has compiled this handout as a guide to help you support your student. No tragedy is the same and yet all individuals in the community experience grief when tragedy occurs. Whether one has a direct or indirect relationship with victims and survivors, all can benefit from an understanding of the grieving process.

Grief is a normal reaction to loss. Grieving individuals usually undergo a process that may have some common stages or characteristics; however, people vary in their expression of grief and its duration. They may feel disbelief, anger, hopelessness, sadness, and/or guilt at various times while grieving.

Sometimes individuals who are grieving will experience symptoms similar to those of depression such as sadness, crying spells, poor appetite and difficulty sleeping. They also may lose interest in friends, hobbies, studies, and activities that previously provided satisfaction. They may prefer isolation or engage in risky activities such as alcohol or drug abuse. They may have a spiritual crisis and a dismal or nonexistent view of the future. A current loss can trigger unresolved feelings associated with a past loss, which might complicate movement through the grief process.

The following is a guide to help respond to those who are grieving. It is written for parents, but applies to anyone affected by the recent tragedy. Grieving is a process that is unique to the culture, temperament, coping style, and history of each individual. The information and suggestions in this guide must be tempered by the complexity of relationships and history that affect the grief process. So proceed gently.

Guidelines for Helpful Interactions

If you recognize that your son or daughter is experiencing the symptoms mentioned in this brochure, you must decide whether to speak to him or her about it. If you do choose to speak with your student, the following are some guidelines for your interaction:

  • Talk to her or him when there are no distractions.
  • Explain what has aroused your concerns.
  • Express your concern for her/him in a direct, straightforward manner.
  • Listen carefully.
  • Show understanding and empathy for what he/she is going through.
  • Avoid criticizing or sounding judgmental.
  • Consider the counseling center as a resource and discuss a possible referral with your student. Inform him or her that our services are confidential.
  • Remember that the student has the right to accept, think over, or refuse your recommendations.
  • If your student resists help and you are still concerned, it may be helpful for you to consult with a counseling center professional staff member.
  • In a crisis, the most important things are to remain calm and to make sure your student is safe.

What can I do to help my student?

Be aware of feelings and thoughts. Even if you feel helpless and afraid for the well-being of your student, it is important to be a calm source of support. This will make your student feel safer and more secure.

Talk of grieving when your son/daughter is ready. Bring up the topic about how your student is handling his or her loss-emotionally, physically, mentally, and socially. Mostly listen. Holding and supporting them may be the best choice. Look for cues that suggest they are ready to end the discussion. Usually proceed at their pace.

Expect emotions. Expect that your student will experience many different emotions and feelings that will fluctuate over time. Even if your student is doing well at first, he or she may become sad weeks or months following the loss. Let him or her know that it is okay to feel sad, angry, indifferent, etc. A reassuring parent validates and contains their student’s feelings. You might say, “It is okay for you to have those feelings.”

Share your feelings. Your student may be more likely to share his or her feelings when you share your own thoughts and feelings. Sharing your feelings and personal stories may help to normalize the experience and reactions of your son or daughter.

Encourage your student to continue with his or her goals and plans. It is quite normal to want to protect and shelter your student when he or she is hurting, but it is important for your son or daughter to get back to his or her normal school routines. Gentle encouragement is better than nagging.

Encourage recreation. Physical exercise, outside activities, and weekend trips may help provide hope that life can again become pleasurable.

Encourage peer relationships. As evidenced at the University, friends are invaluable sources of comfort and understanding. Peers view life from the same generational perspective.

Be patient. The grieving process may take a year or more. Keep in mind the saying, “Don’t push the river, help guide it.”

Stay in touch. Even though your son or daughter may appear to regain joy, he or she still needs your support, attention, love, and hugs.

When might counseling be needed?

Counseling can help facilitate the process of grieving by providing support and education, normalizing reactions, and helping work through feelings associated with loss. Counseling might focus on helping the student to explore the impact of the particular loss, to understand and deal with emotional reactions resulting from the loss, and to begin to say goodbye to their friend while holding onto the essence of what they gained from the relationship. As students move through the grief process, the pain and loss eventually become less intense, and they are able to move forward in their lives. Counseling may also be helpful to the student in negotiating other life demands.

To facilitate early identification of difficulties, listed below are some possible warning signs that indicate students who may benefit from assistance.

  • An expressed need for help
  • Thoughts or statements of death or suicide
  • Prolonged sadness or depressed mood
  • Change in sleep or eating patterns (too much or too little)
  • Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, worthlessness
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • A change in appearance (e.g., poor hygiene)
  • A drop in GPA or academic performance from the previous semester, especially for students who generally perform above average
  • Increased irritability or agitation
  • Consistently inappropriate, illogical, or unrelated questions
  • Distracted or preoccupied thought processes
  • Withdrawal from social interactions with peers, family, and significant others, frequent class absences, and expressions of loneliness
  • Fearful responses, such as avoidance or apprehension about being alone
  • Occurrence of a recent loss or other crisis.

The appearance of any of the above warning signs may indicate that a student is in distress. If any of these signs are observed, especially on a repeated basis within a short period of time (two to three weeks), it is important to talk with your son or daughter and refer him/her to the RU Student Counseling Services.

What do I do if my student is reluctant to seek help?

While it is important to be concerned about the well being of students, we cannot make their decisions for them, and counseling is always a personal choice. Nevertheless, you can assist a student who is ambivalent about seeking professional help in a number of ways:

  • Normalize the process of pursuing counseling.
  • Reassure the student that counseling services are appropriate for anyone needing assistance in coping with and resolving emotional and/or interpersonal concerns.
  • Let the student know that no problem is too big or too small for counseling.
  • Inform the student that he or she can make an appointment to speak to a counselor once without making a commitment to ongoing counseling.
  • Remind the student that any information shared during counseling sessions is kept strictly confidential and will not be disclosed to anyone without her/his written permission.
  • Acknowledge, validate, and discuss the student’s real fears and concerns about seeking help. Some students may feel that counseling is an admission of weakness or failure; we tell students that it takes considerable courage and integrity to face oneself, acknowledge one’s troubles or difficulties, and admit the desire or need for assistance.
  • Suggest that the student visit our web site as a way to become familiar with the services we offer.