Supporting your Student’s Grief through a Wellness Frame

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Tom Szigethy - Associate Dean/Director, DuWell
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These are some unprecedented times. In the past month, our students have experienced a lot to be grieving about, from a worldwide pandemic changing their everyday experience to the postponing of so many traditions and expectations on campus in an attempt to keep everyone safe. We continue to make choices on a systems level, which impact the day-to-day experiences that make the Duke community special. Our students are left to navigate the final month of the semester away from community and often feeling very alone. Students are home and surrounded by the love of family, but this is not the college experience for which they prepared. As a result, we are all grieving and longing for our world to return to some bit of normalcy.

During any typical semester at Duke, we teach students about wellness all the time. We teach them that wellness is more than eating right and exercising. Wellness incorporates physical, emotional, and spiritual work. The challenge for most students is how to translate the ideas of wellness into daily behaviors. In many ways, the messages of wellness development on campus pick up from where parents left off. We want students to recognize when they are under stressful conditions and practice behaviors to mitigate stress, therefore, reducing risk. Students are shown through programs and workshops that there are behaviors to be practiced daily to assist them in becoming comfortable in their own skin. We have found that when students become grounded in regular daily wellness behaviors they enjoy a heightened sense of well-being and often give back to the community by teaching others what has worked for them. So, through a process of applying risk mitigation and participating in wellness development, students begin to give back to their community. Now their community has been altered due to COVID19.

It is with the idea of wellness in mind that I write some things to consider when helping your student navigate all of these changes.

Be present, don't try to fix. Grief is a heavy emotion to manage. I think one of the most difficult things to watch is when our children are in pain. The piece to notice is our wish to “fix it.” Often what our students really require is for us to sit in the uncomfortable emotion with them, while assuring them that they are loved and supported.

Provide connection. Grief can be isolating, and we want our students to understand that they are surrounded by community. Community can come in many forms whether that be family (immediate and extended), friends, or the larger Duke community. Students also have professional resources at their fingertips, faculty and staff, student affairs professionals, DukeReach, and/or CAPS. The key message to provide is for students to be aware of their resources, how to access them, and to make the effort to reach out when needed. There is no reason for anyone to feel alone.

Validate don’t advise. It is often difficult to hear the emotional pain that students may be experiencing, and as a result, we tend to want to advise them on how to feel better. Students don’t always want to have their problem fixed for them, but rather they are trying to make sense of their feelings. Knowing that their parent has gone through similar emotions and came out of it stronger or having learned something about themselves offers students a sense of hope. Students need to be reminded that feelings and emotions can hurt, but they are never permanent; they will pass.

Experiences bring us together. The situations that cause emotional pain are different for each of us, but the feeling is often similar. Build from your own experience to help a student to see that today may feel intense, but they will grow from this experience and be stronger for it.

Change and powerlessness. I have not met many people who enjoy or crave change. Usually people avoid change because we find comfort in the predictable. The times we are in are providing a constant source of change, which can be stressful. Anything we can do to maintain a schedule or bring back some predictability to life can help to provide a sense of stability and security. We are powerless over much of the change that occurs in our lives, especially now.  So it is helpful to remind students to contemplate what they have control over (themselves). This helps support a sense of agency to provide direction for any action necessary to take. Building a daily practice to write about what we can control and what we cannot control can assist students to let go of the worry of things out of our control. Mindfulness and meditation practices challenge us to only address what is in the present moment. Worrying about the future is not productive, and in highly stressful times, it is helpful to reduce the number of random thoughts to just the ones that can be addressed in the present moment.

Love them as you always have. When grieving, students can sometimes feel that they are so down that they are a burden to everyone else listening to them. Reaffirming your love for them by letting them know there is nothing that will stop that love can help reinforce that they can always process their thoughts with you.

Resources: There are many resources available locally and at Duke. I recommend this list compiled by Duke’s CAPS staff:

Together we will support each other. That is what the Duke community is all about.

Thanks, 

Tom Szigethy, MA
Director/Associate Dean
Duke Student Wellness Center

Tom is the Director of DuWell at Duke University since 2008. DuWell addresses the mitigation of risk and the promotion of wellness/resiliency for the undergraduate and graduate/professional students at Duke. Prior to work at Duke, Tom was the Director of the Department of Alcohol and other Substance Abuse Prevention at the University of Connecticut. He comes to higher education work after 15 years in the field of Social Work where he saw the direct impact of substance abuse and poor wellness decisions on the lives of children and families with whom he worked. Working with the college population provides the opportunity to bring awareness and foster good practice to develop and maintain a life supported through wellness for the young men and women on campus.

Tom is a father of four young adult children: 1 undergrad, 1 graduate, 1 military and 1 working full-time. Ts86@duke.edu

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