Emotions follow the death of a student’s parent

The five stages of grief that follow the death of a loved one don’t always fit neatly into a mold. Now that many couples are having children later in life, the odds that a parent will die while his or her child is still in school are up a little nationwide. And while many schools don’t have official policies that include making allowances for grief in a child’s schoolwork or grades, most teachers have been known to deal with this subject in a caring, sensitive, and age-appropriate way.

A chapter of a national organization at the University of Pennsylvania, Actively Moving Forward, works to make the university’s policies accessible to students’ unique grieving situations. The peer counseling group was led last year by seniors Drisana Hughes and Melanie Wolff and sophomore Pat Zancolli, the Daily Pennsylvanian reports.

“This is a thing that happens to a lot of students,” the student newspaper quoted Ms Hughes as saying. “There are a lot of people who don’t come to this group who need help and there needs to be a bigger consciousness among our age group to look out for and help people who are going through this because it is an excruciatingly painful thing,” she said, referring to the loss of a loved one while still a student.

High school students lose loved ones, too, including parents.

Writing in Scot Scoop News, the student newspaper at Carlmont High School in Belmont, California, Samantha Dahlberg says the effect on kids’ lives can be unpredictable, but many strong students in her story have found ways to move past the grief. With the permission of Samantha and the paper’s faculty adviser, we reprint her story here.

Phone call.

Rushing to the hospital.

Horrible news.

No no no no.

Mother just died.

Even though the death of a parent while the kid is still young is not common, it happens, and it can change those left behind in unexpected ways.

“I developed an anxiety problem because of it,” said sophomore K.M.

Some children lose a parent at a young age, which then changes their outlook on life.

For sophomore G.A., he had to find out his devastating news of his dad after school and realized that a lot of people already found out from seeing it on their way home to Redwood Shores.

According to Comfort Zone Camp, the nation’s largest nonprofit provider of childhood bereavement camps, a 2009 survey figured that one out of seven Americans lose a parent or sibling before they turn 20.

Those who have lost a parent may feel that they aren’t as emotionally strong as their peers, but some students at Carlmont are, in fact, willing to use their parent’s death to motivate them into working harder than before.

They choose to not have others give them pity.

“I don’t like to be defined by my dad’s death—like, I don’t want people to feel pity for me,” said S.A.B., a junior. “But I do use it as like a way to push me further. I use it to be more grateful for things, because you never know when you could lose it.”

The loss of a parent reflects on a student in many ways that no one can ever think of, but some students who have endured a loss attempt to ensure that it does not interfere with the person who they want to be in the future.

K.M. views the death of her mom as a way to express her feelings to others, in order to fill the void of her mom with happiness. “I participate in SOS, and I talk to the freshman class. It didn’t really improve my anxiety until I did those presentations with SOS, and that is what helped me the most,” she said.

Editor’s note: Many programs like SOS, which here stands for Sign of Suicide, have been created in middle and high schools across America, and many states have laws requiring school staff to be trained or certified in the recognition of signs of depression in students. The programs are good for much more than suicide awareness, and the bulk of the work they do helps students cope with various situations, including the loss of a loved one, that inevitably arise in children’s lives.

Some choose to remember the death of a loved one by thinking of their best memories with them.

G.A. views the death of his dad as a way to look at life differently, mostly through being thankful for what he has and by taking a more prominent role in his family by helping out more than usual. His father passed away unexpectedly due to a disease that his family did not know about until after his death.

“He went out for a run, but then he didn’t come back,” G.A. said. “He had this disease called cardiomyopathy. It’s like an enlarged heart, meaning that it occurs genetically. Essentially, more exercise is bad for you, and everything that you think is supposed to be healthy is actually bad.”

Parents can die when anyone least expects it.

“You just kinda have to accept that you don’t have [both] parents,” S.A.B. said. “That doesn’t mean that what you have left isn’t enough or that your other parent isn’t enough.”

Sometimes the death will affect the whole family in ways the children thought would never happen in their life. It can happen over time, or even years later.

K.M. said, “Over all, everyone in my family just became more independent.”

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.