Helping Your College Student Cope with a Grandparent's Death

Caring for your own physical and emotional health will help your child the most.

Posted Dec 03, 2017

Do you worry about how your college student would be impacted if your parent passed away? This is a situation that someone I know faced recently. Her mother became gravely ill the week her son had interviews for medical school. She wondered if she should inform him how serious the situation was. Should she tell him if her mother died the night before an interview? Delaying informing someone of a death did not seem like an option, with social media broadcasting news and family events 24/7.

In the end, her mother died right after the interviews ended, so the dilemma was solved for her. But the decision of when and how to inform a college student of a grandparent’s death can be challenging, especially if it is in proximity to final exams or an important interview. There is no one right time or way to share this information, but parents should take into account their child’s current emotional state, the events going on in their life, and how they’ve dealt with loss in the past.

While parents face dilemmas around informing students of a death, college students may face another dilemma: should they take time off from school to go to a grandparent’s funeral? In my experience, most students do not attend an out-of-state funeral, but instead celebrate their grandparent’s life at another time with family. Often families will hold a memorial service a few months after the funeral, so relatives from around the country can participate. If your college student decides to take time off for a funeral, he or she should contact professors or the office of the dean of students to find out the policy for making up work in this situation.

What will your child’s emotional reaction be to the death of a grandparent? I have found that the responses of students vary widely. The psychiatrist Kubler-Ross famously talked about the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, these emotions do not arrive in a linear fashion, but can come and go at different times. Most students are saddened by a grandparent’s death, but some are also relieved if their loved one suffered from a long illness. Others might be angry at grandparents who were not there for them. Most students who lose a grandparent will have some kind of emotional reaction. In the course of providing psychiatry treatment to college students, I’ve seen many who have lost a grandparent at some point during their college years. They will generally mention a recent death at the beginning of the session and talk about their response.

What is the academic impact of the loss of a grandparent? One study showed that college students who experienced the death of any family member had a drop in GPA the semester of the death. Just under 50 percent of this sample lost parents, and 22 percent lost grandparents, so it is hard to extrapolate what the exact impact of a grandparent's death is. One can assume that generally the death of a grandparent has less of an impact than the death of a parent. Experiencing the death of a loved one during the college years is not uncommon, affecting 40 percent of college students in a two-year period.

What if your student becomes overwhelmed by the loss of a grandparent? I worked with a young man years ago who struggled emotionally and academically for the two semesters after his grandmother died. A significant source of social support, she had helped raise him while his parents worked. With the aid of individual therapy and medication for depression, he eventually was able to heal from the pain of his overwhelming grief. If your child experiences continued sadness, sleep difficulties, or trouble functioning in school, refer him or her to the campus counseling center. A therapist and/or psychiatrist can evaluate whether your child’s grief is complicated by clinical depression, and can provide treatment that will help him or her work through it. Many colleges have bereavement groups, where students can support each other in the grieving process.

Practically speaking, if your child is overwhelmed by grief and needs to delay taking an exam, or even reduce the semester’s course load, he or she should consult with the office of the dean of students about how to proceed. You can also call the office of the dean of students for information if your child does not know what to do.

While most students recover from the loss of a grandparent, their biggest worry might be your response to the death of a parent. Many students are extremely protective of their parents. They may worry if you appear sadder than they have ever seen you, or if you cry. If you are grieving the loss of a parent, reassure them that deep sadness is a normal reaction, and your joy in life will return with time. Meanwhile, be mindful of your physical and emotional health. If you are having a tough time, you can be honest with them, while reassuring them that you are getting support from family and friends. See a counselor if you are feeling overwhelmed. Take care of yourself so your college student can stay focused on school.

Below are some final tips for helping your college student:

1. Be flexible about their attendance of the funeral. Some students are concerned about taking time off from school. You or your child can ask the office of the dean of students about their policy for making up work in this situation.

2. Check in with your child about their response to grief, which can vary with time.

3. Encourage your college student to seek therapy at the campus counseling center if he or she needs additional support.

4. Take care of yourself in your time of grief. Make your physical and emotional health a priority.

The poet Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.” We never want to stop to think that death is coming, and when it does, it inevitably stuns us, even if a loved one has lived a long and full life. A grandparent’s death can pose some challenges for a college student, but with your support and working with campus resources, your college student can learn to cope with this painful fact of life.

My book, The Campus Cure: A Parent's Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students, will be released in 2018.

©2017 Marcia Morris, All Rights Reserved. Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

If you’re interested in reading about a particular topic regarding college wellness and your child’s mental health, please email me at

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