The Myth and Practice of Grief in Student Affairs
written by Taylor Gladieux and Michelle L. Boettcher
The field of Higher Education is one that emphasizes holistic wellness among college students. We are taught to ask probing questions, we give time for students to progress through the stages of development, and we comfort them in their array of emotions that they experience whether it be homesickness or a breakup or even family crisis or changing majors because of grades or other issues. We are good at this. We develop competencies around being good at this.
What higher education administrators are not always the best at, however, is taking care of themselves. We work in a field in which putting the needs of our students above our own is celebrated. You put in extra hours for the group you advise? You get recognized as a great adviser. You gave up a night out to be present at an on-campus event? You are seen as a practitioner who is always there for students. You answer a student staff member’s email over the weekend begging for help with a program two weeks away? You are amazingly responsive and caring. Us, too. We totally get it. Though we foster a culture that emphasizes self-care, we do little as a profession to integrate this into our own practice, profession, and lives. This lack of integration threatens the retention of many practitioners, but especially those who are grieving.
This article is the result of us, as authors, sharing our personal experiences of grieving, and we have found one common denominator: it is different for everyone. Yet, we have seen many colleagues and friends treat grief with a sort of prescribed script of words and actions. As helping professionals in the field, we want to offer some comments, reflections, and recommendations on how to better navigate these conversations and reactions to our peers who are grieving and provide perspective on how this, ultimately, will make us all better at our jobs and better human beings with one another.
October of 2016 changed my entire life. I was walking to class, preparing for my first midterm of graduate school, when I received the call that my mother was missing. Yet, fifteen minutes later, I walked in and took the exam. In the days and week that passed, I experienced many of the stages of grief; however, the most profound experience was the deafening lack of conversation surrounding my mother’s death by suicide.
I was someone who was particularly open about my mom’s passing, and though people sent warm wishes it often ended in “let me know what you need.” I know these responses were, and are, good-natured. But—as someone who is navigating grief for the first time, trying to hold together pieces of her family, and integrate back into graduate school—I was drowning in what I needed and lacked the articulation to share that. So, I threw myself into my work. Student Affairs is a time-consuming field—filling my time was not difficult. I volunteered for committees, joined campus coalitions, ran for our honor society’s executive board. What I realized was difficult, though, was keeping that grief inside of me. I saw this grief manifest in ways I didn’t expect: lack of patience with my peers/students surrounding things that stressed them out (didn’t they know how stressed out I had been about returning), lack of emotional control (okay, I wasn’t always great at this, but now I was crying just because someone just looked at me), and isolation even among a family of seven.
I want to tell you that this all got better because of one thing. But the reality is that that didn’t happen. It took many more manifestations before I realized I couldn’t ignore my grief anymore. I started going to counseling, and talking about that, too, because hiding therapy made it seem like something I was ashamed of. I used my grief as a platform to connect with others who were grieving by speaking on survivor panels. Now, I have moved into my final year of graduate school, and the smaller impacts of my loss have begun. I went to the campus health center; my mom was still my emergency contact – had to change that. My best friend got married, and I saw the ways in which my mother will never get to be a part of that day for me. My students complain about their parents and my thoughts went to “but at least you HAVE them.” These are small things, but things that have impacted my worldview and my interactions with students. The whole world looks and feels different, but this difference doesn’t mean that my life is over. I just have a new way of doing everything now, but I don’t think people were ready for the changes in me when it came to my work or my interactions.
I got a call from my mom the first week of classes in the fall of 2017. I knew it was not good news because she never called late at night. My younger brother had been fighting cancer for the past three years. (He was diagnosed the week after my father died from a long battle with cancer in 2014.) The next day my youngest brother called to let me know he had died. Having been through the grieving process with my dad a few years earlier, I thought I knew what to expect.
My father died during my first year as a faculty member. He had been sick for a long time, and we knew it was coming. I happened to be home working on a research project when it happened. I was there, my family there, and I had a sense of closure. Based on that experience, I thought the same would be true with Erik’s passing: I would be sad. I would spend time with family reminiscing and being sad and also celebrating and learning things I hadn’t known about my brother.
That was not my experience. I’m sure there are many reasons – Erik was young and he was younger than I am. We knew my dad’s passing was imminent, but we were still holding out hope for Erik’s treatments. I worried about how this would affect my mom and my youngest brother Kirk in ways that were different from when Dad passed.
Similarly, I thought I knew how I would engage with people who wanted to offer thoughts and support. I would respond and thank them. I would appreciate the people around me. I would move forward. I had it all planned out.
Guess what doesn’t really care what your plans are? Grief. I didn’t feel as connected to my teaching that semester as I had in the past. I didn’t manage my emotions as well as in the past. I would be caught off guard repeatedly for months by sadness. I’m not generally a sad person, so the experience of being sad, in and of itself, was a new and difficult challenge. I think some people had in mind a timeline for my grief, and when it took me longer to work through it, they didn’t understand why. My difference at work and beyond didn’t make sense to them (or me). Others didn’t necessarily attribute the difference to my loss. There seemed to be expectations that I could not meet, a lack of understanding around my shortcomings, and resistance to me more regularly saying no and creating boundaries so I had space to figure things out.
So why share our stories? Grief is messy, it’s individualized, and people shouldn’t expect it to work a certain way or follow a certain timeline. Typically, what people expect is 1) Loss, 2) Sadness, and 3) Getting Over It. What it really looks like is 1) Loss, 2) Navigating that Loss, 3) Something Different again. Sad-mad-glad. Sometimes even “okay.” What we want to offer from our perspectives is a better model for supporting each other, and by extension our students, around grief. We add “our students” only because we know you student affairs people. We know that you might do things for yourself that could benefit students even if you won’t do them just for yourselves.
Where We Could Do Better
In student affairs we want to be appreciated for all we are offering and all we can do – even if it requires a skill set we don’t have or can’t use at some given time. What we need to recognize first is that if we don’t have the time, energy, confidence, or willingness to go deep in the experience, we probably shouldn’t offer to do that. It’s okay to say, “Are you hurting?” And when the person says, “Yes,” it’s okay to say, “I’m so sorry.” And leave it at that. That’s much more appropriate and far less selfish than saying, “What can I do?”, but then backing out or not showing up fully when someone starts to work through the process with you.
Further, you may want to ask and have the ability to show up, but be inclined to avoid conversations surrounding loss entirely. Don’t. The losses we have endured are not something we forget. You saying something about your mom, or asking about mine, will not make her absence any more noticeable to me. Some days I am begging for someone to ask me to share memories with them—this is a huge part of how I keep someone alive.
We recognize that this may be different for some people, which leads us to our next suggestion: Do not offer your opinions on our grief management. If you have ever experienced a loss, you will know that the process is unpredictable, and people never know when the smallest thing will hit them. We need to make space for this in the workplace. If a colleague is returning after a loss, we need to know that maybe they will cry in a staff meeting—and this might not be the first week back, but maybe five months later. That is OKAY. We should not act uncomfortable or shame them in any way for breaking professional façade.
Often, this lack of confrontation of our genuine feelings when and where we experience them leads those who are grieving to suppress their feelings altogether. When feelings are suppressed, they then are likely to manifest in many unhealthy and problematic ways. This becomes hazardous when it affects our work with students. To be doing quality work, we must first be able to adequately care for ourselves, and so this space for grieving is necessary.
Good Practice in Action
One thing that we realized in writing this piece is that, at times in some of the drafts, we felt like we were overly critical of others. This is really difficult stuff—for the person experiencing the loss and for those who care about that person. We know that. We’ve been on the other side of loss and the grieving process, too. We have undoubtedly made our own mistakes. With that in mind, we also wanted to highlight some things people have done that have been tremendously helpful because through our experiences there were many moments that people surprised us with their kindness and genuine care.
Small moments. Most of the most profound comments and actions were simple acts of caring or outreach, like someone sending a quick email saying, “I hope you’re okay. Thinking of you.” As we mentioned earlier, acknowledging the loss or reaching out in a caring way is not going to remind someone that they are grieving. They know and live that on a daily, sometimes moment-to-moment, basis already.
Here is a more specific example from Taylor: A friend bought me a Clemson Christmas ornament because they knew my mom got me one every year for a significant event in my life that year. This showed not only a sense of care for me, but also was a way of honoring and recognizing my mom and my connections to her. Obviously, the holidays can be particularly difficult for people. This meant a lot to me.
Workplace practices. In both of our experiences, our colleagues were gracious as we navigated our processes. Colleagues allowed us to say “I’m not in a place to be here right now,” and let us work from home. Similarly, they let us be physically present even if we weren’t always as fully engaged or connected to conversations as we had been in the past.
In addition to emails (as mentioned previously), leaving cards or notes so that we could engage with things on our own time was helpful. While reaching out face-to-face can be helpful, it also can require the person grieving to engage in the moment, and at work, which can sometimes be a space where a person navigating loss may not want to process or share how they are doing. Support and care can also be demonstrated through actions that show genuine care, rather than conversations in which people attempt to relate to grief.
Respecting difference. All of the above should be taken as it is being offered – our perspectives. While the two of us connected and found some common themes in our experiences, we are obviously a pretty small sample of people. Others will experience loss in different and unique ways. In order to be really supportive, the best advice we have is to ask the person what they want or need and to leave the door open for following up because wants and needs change with the ebb and flow of grief. While we are drawing from lessons learned, we also know that grief is a highly individualized process with many, many variables to consider.
To those in the field who are also navigating loss: we want to share some thoughts with you, as well. It is okay to be where you are. There is no timetable for your grief and we cannot assume everything will be the same after this. Change is predictable (though the form that change takes often is not), and it will be new but okay. You shouldn’t be afraid to share your genuine feelings with your peers and students—we encourage our students to do this all the time. Also, asking for help from friends, or getting help from a licensed professional, can be good. This takes courage, and resources, so we recognize this will not be the path for everyone. In our experience, however, often people will show up when you express that you do, in fact, need them to do better for you. We promise, something will grow from all that you are going through—and it will be you.
To those of you who reach out in ways that are focused on the other in their moments of grief, who ask what they want or need and respond accordingly, who don’t take it personally when those who are in the midst of grief need time and space and engage differently: thank you. To those of you who send email messages even after others assume the time of grieving has passed, and who offer encouragement in seemingly small ways that don’t require the person who is hurting to attend to your needs in order to make you feel like a good person for your support: you are indeed good people and we are grateful to you.
In a field where attending to others is often our calling, and putting others before ourselves is often our self-imposed obligation, attending to the self in times of grief is essential, even as it is also uncomfortable. Having the support of our teams at work makes a huge difference. We have to continually remind ourselves that self-care is not selfish.
Michelle Boettcher is an assistant professor at Clemson University. She teaches research and law and ethics and her research focuses on senses of belonging and connectedness and the experiences of first generation college students.
Taylor Gladieux is an academic advisor at Clemson University and has worked in residence life. She has experience in a variety of roles and trainings in higher education related to the support of students and colleagues around personal, professional, and academic issues.