The death of a university student is a traumatic experience for family, fellow students and university staff. In this article, I focus on the university response to student death and outline the components of a possible university death response plan (DRP). I also look at the impact of student death on families, students, and staff in a university setting. The piece is based on my experience of responding to student death in my role as a director of a university counselling service and on my doctorate research.
Impact on families
The devastation of a student’s death on the bereaved family cannot be overstated, with families affected in myriad ways. Parents do not anticipate their children dying while at university, just as they are about to achieve significant life and career goals. The experience challenges beliefs about how life should be: principally, that children will and should outlive their parents. Parents must relearn and re-author their personal identity and their life narrative, as must siblings. The death of a sibling can have long-lasting implications for psychological wellbeing, capacity for intimate relationships and for an underlying sense of the meaning of life. Bereaved siblings can feel overlooked or can become the object of parental over-protectiveness and anxiety. The identity and structure of the family alter after a bereavement and must be renegotiated. Family members co-construct the meaning of the death, which may be complicated by the changes in the family and the differences in how family members grieve,1,2 including potential gender variations in grieving.3
Impact on students
Research indicates that bereavement can impact a student’s academic performance,4 emotional wellbeing, mental health,5 social relationships and achievement of developmental milestones,6 such as intimate relationships and identity formation.7 The impact of a peer’s death on a college student needs to be understood in relation to their developmental stage. A key task of late adolescence is resolving the issue of identity versus role confusion and, in young adulthood, working through the issue of intimacy versus isolation.8 The death of a fellow student can be a life-altering experience for some, similar to the loss of a family member. Like any bereavement, the experience will be shaped by the meaning and or closeness of the relationship and the role of the deceased in the bereaved student’s life. It will also be shaped by previous loss experiences. For many students, this may be their first bereavement. It may shatter their sense of invulnerability, their worldview, and their self-worth, and may provoke existential questioning. Students’ resilience, hardiness, and existing vulnerabilities will also shape their reactions. The experience of bereavement may, however, lead to personal growth, such as increased compassion and empathy. Students’ experiences will also be shaped by the university context and their level of academic and social integration.
Impact on university staff
Although literature emanating from student services’ practice acknowledges the inevitably stressful nature of responding to a student death and the need for self-care,9–11 it also suggests that working with people who are in high distress can be very meaningful for staff.12 The role of academic staff in assisting bereaved students when one of their peer group student dies is key.13 Although the practice literature highlights the need to monitor and engage in outreach to staff who knew the deceased,14,15 very little research has been undertaken that specifically focuses on the needs of academic staff in this context.16
The impact of a death by suicide
Suicides will result in questions of ‘Why?’ for all those who knew the person, but particularly for family members and those who were close to the deceased. Survivors often engage in an endless search for motives. The question of ‘Why?’ is often followed by ‘Could it have been prevented?’, ‘What might I have done?’ and ‘Did I miss warning signs?’. Feelings of guilt, anger and rejection are usual, as are feelings of isolation. These may be intensified by a reluctance of people to talk about the death, due to the lingering stigma surrounding suicide in our society. Feelings of shame and embarrassment are not uncommon and, in some cases, there is still a reluctance to disclose the cause of death. Where the deceased had expressed suicidal intent over a prolonged period or where families have had constant worries about the possibility, there can be some feelings of relief. Such feelings are usually short lived and do not negate the bereavement process.
There is a limited literature of the impact on clinicians of working with suicidal clients and those who take their own lives.16 Reactions to client suicide can include anger, sadness, grief, shock, anxiety, guilt and doubt about professional competence. The impact will be shaped by personal factors, the institutional context and the wider culture. Studies indicate that student services staff experience shock and loss. Staff can feel a sense of responsibility and, in some cases, a fear that they may be blamed by the deceased’s family and others.17–19
Responding to student death: death response plans
In recognition of the distress involved for all concerned, some universities in the US, UK and Ireland have now developed DRPs.20 These guide institutional responses to student deaths and in some cases to the loss of members of staff.
DRPs are shaped by universities’ experience of student death and the informal sharing of practice through professional networks. DRPs assist in ensuring that the administrative, legal, financial, and other processes, which are required in order to bring the university’s relationship with the deceased from ‘enrolled participant’ to ‘posthumous alumnus’, are undertaken in a timely and appropriate manner. They must respond to the emotional as well as logistical needs of parents, students and staff. A well-organised DRP shows compassion, signalling to survivors that the university understands their distress and cares about their wellbeing. Such a response avoids delays, duplication, conflicting priorities and goals and the spread of rumours or inaccurate information. It diminishes the risk of groups or individuals in need of support not being identified, inappropriate and uncoordinated contacts by university staff with those affected by the death, and public relations mishaps and liabilities arising from mismanagement.
Zinner suggests that general awareness and preparation, rather than institutionalised plans and procedures, are required: every death is unique and the response needs to be tailored to each circumstance.21 The DRP should never be a ‘tick box’ exercise.
Components of a university
DRP Like other university policies and procedures, a DRP should specify its purpose, benefits, principles and scope, and include links to other related documents, such as the university’s emergency management plan.
A college DRP might include:
- Harnessing student support networks (students supporting students) and their families
- Minimising the risk of suicide contagion, if relevant
- Addressing student retention issues
- Reducing the possible negative impact of bereavement on academic performance
- Identification and proactive follow-up with those most at risk
- Acknowledgement of the deceased
- Acknowledgement of the impact of the death on students.
In relation to student suicide, an important aim of the DRP is to minimise the risk of contagion. It is important that this aim is explicitly stated in the DRP as it guides staff in their understanding and response. Some research has indicated that if the response to suicide is not managed appropriately, it may inadvertently contribute to further suicides. Levine suggests that an extended focus on suicides could activate emotional distress among those who had previously experienced psychological difficulties, which could lead to contagion.14
Suicide contagion has been identified as a phenomenon among students.18 Clusters may occur in defined geographical areas or in institutions, and may be the result of social or behavioural contagion.19 A recent study in Ireland suggested that up to 10 per cent of suicides might be part of a cluster and that this percentage could be as high as 30–50 per cent in under-21 year olds.20
The last 20 years have seen theoretical diversification in the area of grief and bereavement, and no one theoretical paradigm is currently dominant in the research. Traditional bereavement theorists focus on the internal experiences of the bereaved person and the belief that it is essential that they engage in ‘grief work’ so as to disengage from the deceased.21 A DRP informed by traditional models of bereavement will most likely emphasise the need for engaging in grief work in order to resolve loss and move on with a ‘functioning life’.
Postmodern theories on grief include Klass, Silverman and Nickman’s model of continuing bonds;22 Stroebe and Schult’s dual process model of bereavement (DPM);23 and Neimeyer’s meaningmaking or meaning reconstruction.24 These later models are less prescriptive about grief work and the need to disengage from the deceased. They emphasise maintaining connections with the deceased through a variety of unique and creative practices, which may include stories, actions and rituals which affirm an ongoing significance of the deceased in the lives of the bereaved.
Research studies, though not unequivocal, suggest that clinical interventions are not required by everyone who is bereaved and should not be offered universally or routinely.25 It is further suggested that they should be targeted at those at risk of complicated grief, or those who self-identify as requiring assistance.26
Current best practice guidelines suggest a three-component model of bereavement support.27 The first component is the provision of information on the bereavement process and available support to all concerned within six to eight weeks of a death. The second component refers to the harnessing of peer, local and community support networks. The third involves the provision of psychological services for the minority of individuals experiencing complicated grief. When provided, clinical interventions need to be tailored to the individual, based on a thorough assessment, and provided by qualified professionals. It is important that student counselling services have a good understanding of the relevant theories and contribute to the review and development of DRPs in their institutions.
Defined leadership/coordinator of the DRP
The leadership/coordinator role should be clearly articulated in the plan, to ensure that the overall response is coordinated by one identified person working with a team. The post holder must have a deputy and both must be able to respond immediately and to engage in the follow-up required. They should be staff members with the authority and influence to mobilise what is required across the university.
Universities which respond most effectively – with compassionate, thorough and non-escalating approaches, specifically in relation to suicides – are those that adopt a coordinated team approach. These teams are representative of the diversity of the university community and services. The roles of all concerned should be clearly outlined, including the coordinator, the counselling service, chaplaincy, and head of the academic school/ department. It is important that a lead contact with the family is agreed.
A wider response team may be required, and the DRP should include the following staff roles so they can be mobilised if necessary: designated liaison persons for the police, for the media, for advising on cultural matters and legal concerns. In the case of a student death on campus, accommodation staff and deans of residence will be involved. The role of the students’ union and class representatives should also be included in the DRP.
Verification, communication and notification
It is important that the death is verified promptly, especially in an age of social media where rumours can go viral within seconds. Clear communication and a detailed listing of who needs to be notified and by whom are important.
Such a list would include:
- Students: classmates, housemates, members of relevant university clubs and societies, students’ union and relevant class representatives
- Staff: all staff in the relevant department including part-time staff, lab attendants, security staff
- Central university services: student services, academic registry, library, fees.
Immediate notification of the death by the university to students is very important, even when it is likely that some students already know of the death. It may be their first experience of bereavement. The support of academic members of staff who knew the student cannot be underestimated and it is important for students to sense that in its response to the death, the university cares for the deceased student and for them. The immediate response may focus on informing students, supporting them at funerals, arranging deferments of academic submissions for class groups and encouraging them to mobilise family and other personal support networks. In an Irish context, the presence of staff members at the funeral and acknowledgment of the death at the first lecture afterwards are appreciated by students. 16
Liaison with families
The need for sensitivity in the way in which university officers and staff liaise with families, both at the time of death and afterwards, cannot be overstated. This will include providing accurate information, a means by which to stay in contact, and expressions of condolences and our own sorrow as staff/ counsellors, as well as practical assistance. Student counsellors can assist with this by supporting and training staff in how best to liaise at a time of heightened sensitivities. Norton and Harper advocate ongoing relationships with the families of the deceased and the importance of record keeping for new staff so that families are not forgotten in the long term.28 Parents want to know that the university has not forgotten their son/daughter and appreciate letters or cards for anniversaries or birthdays and inclusion in memorial services. As families’ reactions and needs differ, collaboration with them in respect of their wishes is essential.
These are ways of acknowledging the deceased as an important member of the college community and of acknowledging the grief of family, friends, classmates and facilitating their continuing bonds with the deceased. The university’s policy and practice needs to be clear, and families’ wishes respected within that framework. Policies on reimbursement of tuition fees and costs in relation to repatriation of remains also need consideration.
The role of peer support
While students’ preferred source of support is often from their peers, and it is preferable to harness natural support networks, students’ limited knowledge and understanding of the bereavement process and related skills may restrict their ability to support their bereaved peers. Psychoeducational input on types of bereavement, including suicide and the grief experience, is useful. Student counselling services have a valuable role in providing this for students.
Media guidelines and public relations
University activities and initiatives which acknowledge the life of the deceased and the loss to the community need to be clearly communicated if they are to be of value to the bereaved. One person should be designated as the point of contact for all media queries, should these arise. Students should be alerted to the pros and cons of media contact and should be advised that they can choose not to speak to the media.
Post-funeral follow-up and review
Follow-up is essential to provide students with information about the bereavement process and where to seek help, should they need it. Department of Health guidelines suggest such follow up six to eight weeks after a bereavement.29 However, given the length of the college term and the potential impact on students’ studies, I suggest that this follow-up should happen seven to 14 days after the bereavement. The response team should meet and identify what follow-up is required and who should be responsible for it.
Those who might be at risk should be identified and invited to attend for counselling if they wish. Following a suicide, flat-mates (whether in campus accommodation or in the private rented sector) may require support. The need for support applies particularly in cases where students themselves find the body and where they are required to attend an inquest, or for students who have pre-existing mental health difficulties. Arrangements may need to be made in relation to some students taking leave of absence or deferring their examinations or other academic submissions.
Response teams also need to review the response, look at lessons learned and make any adjustments to the DRP where indicated.
Training and dissemination
The DRP should be circulated annually. But because not all staff read their university’s DRP until they are involved in a death response, ongoing staff training/ induction is essential so that the university response is optimised for students, families and staff as they cope with their bereavement. This training should include bereavement theory and interventions, how the effects of bereavement are influenced by the developmental stage of students and by the particular nature of the university environment. Increasing awareness of bereavement is a way of increasing the community’s ability to support the bereaved. Student counselling services can assist with this training.
The impact on families, students and staff when a student dies needs to be recognised and understood by university staff. This understanding needs to be embedded in the university’s DRP, which should be underpinned by knowledge of the bereavement process, current research and clinical guidelines. Student counsellors have an important role in assisting universities in developing, reviewing, implementing and providing training in respect of the DRP.
Dr Deirdre Flynn is the Director of the Student Counselling Services including Student Learning Development and Student2Student at Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. Deirdre’s doctoral research, Experiences of Sudden Student Death: A Narrative Enquiry, focused on students’, staff and parents’ experiences of the university’s responses to student deaths.
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