We Get It book cover

Heather Servaty-Seib and a professor from the University of Pennsylvania authored, "We Get It," a book of testimonials from grieving students. 

Students grieving a loss often feel they have nowhere to turn.

The words, “death, dying and dead” are more often spoken in passing or in a joke than with serious and thoughtful sympathy. This phenomenon is even more concentrated on college campuses, where grief can present an added layer of stress with no real outlet.

Heather Servaty-Seib, a professor of counseling psychology in the College of Education, leads a grief-and-loss research team. On Wednesday evening, they gave a presentation on living with loss in a conference room on the third floor of Beering Hall, which was full of undergraduates, staff and faculty.

“We wanted to do something that we thought would help students, so we’re having this talk,” Servaty-Seib said. “We are experts at not being experts. We don’t know the first thing about your individual grief.”

The team’s main points were that grief is a lifelong process and that each person grieves uniquely. Part of the process is simply understanding the vocabulary: grief is the passive and involuntary reaction to the state of bereavement, according to Servaty-Seib; bereavement is simply having experienced a loved one's death; mourning is active, voluntary and chosen.

Kayla Babcock, a sophomore in the Polytechnic Institute, lost her grandmother just before class started for the fall semester and felt she had a healthy way to deal with her grief and even share it. She wanted to open up a forum for the discussion of death around Purdue’s campus.

“I wanted to find a grief support group for students who were grieving like me, and I was unable to find a single support group for students that wasn’t religion-based,” she said. “I saw the need for the death of a loved one to be talked about, and I think it’s time we normalize the conversation about student grief.”

Since Babcock could not find a group to suit her needs, she went about starting her own. She found an organization, Actively Moving Forward, of which she is in the process of starting a chapter at Purdue.

Babcock said that AMF has two tiers, one for support and one for service. She emphasized the importance of the two in conjunction with one another.

“That’s where the Actively Moving Forward name comes from,” she said. “In order to work through grief and promote health grieving methods, refocusing our energies on bettering our community has been proven to be healthy for grieving people.”

Servaty-Seib clarified the importance of the distinction between “moving on” and “moving forward,” in the context of grief. She said the former implies that the loss is a discrete event that can be left in the past, which is not true of the grieving process. The latter more accurately describes the ongoing process of managing grief.

The grief team views loss with a broader lens than what might be normally expected, meaning someone does not have to have experienced a loved one's death for the loss to be legitimate. The loss could be in the form of a romantic breakup, a miscarriage, the death of a pet or even the loss of a person's virginity.

Servaty-Seib also explained some people who have experienced loss are not given the same social acceptance as others.

“Grievers can be disenfranchised,” she said. “College students are one of those groups.”

That being said, Purdue was the second university in the nation to offer bereavement policies to students, according to the professor. The Exponent reported in 2010 that Purdue Student Government passed a resolution about bereavement  that was followed up by a University Senate ruling in 2011. Before this resolution, the bereavement policy that is now afforded to students only applied to faculty.

The Grief Absence Policy for Students applies to all full-time and part-time students enrolled in the university and says “students will be excused for funeral leave and given the opportunity to earn equivalent credit and to demonstrate evidence of meeting the learning outcomes for missed assignments or assessments in the event of the death of a member of the student’s family,” according to university regulations.

The amount of time given off is associated with relationship between the deceased and the student.

The grief team shared the do’s and don'ts of talking to a griever: the least helpful actions are to minimize the griever’s feelings and to force cheerfulness with, for example, a phrase like, “You shouldn’t let this get you down.” The most helpful actions are to offer presence and openness in any way possible, with statements like, “I am here for you,” and “If you want to talk, I will listen.”

These communication skills are important, especially on a college campus, according to Babcock. She does not believe today’s student grief environment works very well.

“I do not think the current approach college students take to grieving is healthy,” she said. “A lot of students grieve silently, which makes them feel alone in their grief. Sometimes these students may even turn to readily available drugs or alcohol to help them through the grieving process.”

Grief in a college-student context is still developing into a shareable topic, but Servaty-Seib and David Fajgenbaum, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, recently published a book of student-grief narratives called “We Get It,” in 2015.

The book and organizations like AMF continue to open up the forum about grief in the United States in general and within university environments.

AMF is available to any students from the undergraduate level to the doctorate level, and for more information, interested students can email Babcock at babcockk@purdue.edu.

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