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Coping with loss in university

Spencer Van Dyk | Fulcrum Staff

Illustration by Mathias MacPhee

INDEPENDENCE, NEW FRIENDS, character-building experiences. Everyone has heard the college cliché, “These are the best days of our lives.” But what happens when they’re not?

Occasionally an event occurs that can turn life upside down. Whether it’s an illness, divorce, or the death of a loved one, tragedies outside of our control happen, often when we least expect them.

“The kinds of things that [we’re] talking about, chances are pretty good that everyone will experience one of those negative life events,” said Dr. John Hunsley, professor and director of the clinical psychology program at the University of Ottawa. “It does not mean they’re predictable, but they are expected.”

Expected or not, the question remains: How can students—who have enough life changes on their plates as it is—deal with those issues? The Fulcrum sat down with students and professionals to better understand major negative life events, how to cope with them, and how to move forward.

When the world stops
According to Hunsley, emotions are unpredictable, and different people will have varying gut reactions to bad news. Students who went through their own difficult situations felt they had little control over their initial responses.

Savannah Soule is a first-year student at the University of Ottawa who is currently dealing with the loss of her aunt.

“I actually figured out [two weeks ago] through Facebook that she was gone; my cousin had posted something,” explained Soule about her aunt’s death. “Thankfully my roommate wasn’t home, because I just started bawling.”

Fourth-year U of O music student Sean Miles* was in second year when his mother, from whom he had been estranged for several years, passed away.

“You just sort of stay in bed, [but] pick yourself up and go to class some of the time,” he said. “I wasn’t feeling social; I didn’t enjoy the things that I normally enjoyed. I was depressed.”

Hunsley explained it’s important for individuals to realize an adjustment period is necessary.

“[Tragic events] require people to make adjustments, no question,” he said. “I think it’s important that people recognize that when these events occur, it’s very unlikely they’re going to be able to immediately function at the level they’re used to.”

“I think the one thing you want to hear when you’re grieving is that there is no standard way to grieve,” said Miles. “There is no feeling ‘x’ that you should be feeling, and no marker of time that you should be feeling that way.”

Act fast
According to the experts, a crucial component of coping is accepting the fact that something awful has happened, while also accepting that life goes on. They urge students to seek help sooner rather than later, because denial can lead to more serious problems.

“Avoiding the situation, not thinking about it, not talking about it, [and] just trying to carry on as you normally do can work for people for a very short period of time,” said Hunsley. “[It] can’t last very long. If people just keep pushing it away, that’s not very healthy, and is more likely to lead to problems.”

Donald Martin, the manager of Counselling and Coaching Service (CCS), a branch of the U of O Student Academic Success Service (SASS), describes CCS as a short-term intervention centre whose priority is academic success. He also believes in asking for help sooner rather than later.

“When students are dealing with a significant disruption in their lives, usually they can’t wait two or three weeks to get some help,” he said. “Otherwise their entire semester could rapidly become in jeopardy. A very important thing for students is to access on-campus services as quickly as possible. The sooner we see them, the more likely it is that the [academic] issue will not become more complicated and really put their semester in danger. Sometimes even just one week of not being able to study can really be disruptive in terms of being able to catch up, especially if you’re studying full time.”

A little help from my friends… And family
Luna Tetley’s* parents got divorced after 21 years of marriage while she was away at university.

While she felt that her family, including her two younger brothers who were still living at home, would have provided good support, she found it difficult to turn to them because they were so close to the situation.

“I could always talk to my family, but it was tough because they were all going through their own tough times,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to be upset and miserable…when they have their own emotions they’re trying to deal with. Because I was away, my friends and boyfriend were my primary support.”

Not everyone has a strong support system in their new home when they go away for university. Soule moved to Ottawa just in time for 101 Week. Since her aunt passed away, she has been relying heavily on family to get her through.

“I haven’t made many friends up here,” she said. “[I’m] just starting school, so I’ve met some friends, but I don’t know them well enough [to] want to say that kind of thing to them.”

Miles felt that, despite their best intentions, his friends weren’t necessarily able to provide the support he needed.

“My friends were there, but friends don’t know how to deal with [the loss of a parent]. They’re just like, ‘If you need me, I’m here,’ but I don’t know how to depend on a friend and my friends don’t know how to give me any support,” said Miles. “My family was good. Since my mother died, we spend a lot more time together. My brother and I actually moved in together, so we sort of consolidated our immediate family … there was a lot of support with family.”

Seeking counsel
Although some prefer not to seek counselling to deal with grief, for those who need help coping, there are services available on and off campus.

After Miles’ mother passed, he sought the help of a counsellor at the CCS for help.

“Friends were there,” he said. “But it’s hard to kind of call on them, so I relied heavily on the counselling, which worked out because [CCS] was fantastic.”

Martin explained that when services on campus are unable to meet students’ needs, there are further options available.

“Sometimes what they need is something that is not offered on campus, and in that case, we help them find what they need in the community,” he said. “Either we see them here, or we make sure they get connected elsewhere.”

Professionals ensure students have the tools necessary to cope with tragic events. Hunsley explained the distinction between problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. The former describes a situation where a problem has occurred and you take immediate steps to fix it. Emotion-focused coping, however, describes a situation where you must evaluate your reactions to the event and prioritize your goals around it, because you can’t change the event. It’s taking time to work on yourself and process your emotions.

“It’s not just a matter of doing concrete problem-focused versus emotion-focused,” elaborated Hunsley. “Research does clearly indicate coping strategies that are more effective and less effective. [At first,] you just have to get things done. You put your emotions aside and on hold, and you just focus. But that can’t last very long. At some point, you’re going to have to pay attention.”

While counsellors, psychiatrists, and psychologists are some of the professionals that first come to mind when we think about getting help, another avenue is spiritual advisors. Anna Stoli, the head of the ministry at MyChurch, located at Algonquin College, explained her team’s role in supporting students dealing with significant life stresses.

“The ministry team, just like any other community in your life, is a way for people to feel welcome, and to have someone with whom to communicate their struggles, as well as their joys,” she said. “We are here to make it easier for people. This is a church where students feel more comfortable—we do have a lot of students that it’s their first semester in Ottawa and they [may not] have anybody to talk to.”

Regardless of your situation or your religious beliefs, it’s important to both address concrete problems and to nurture your emotions. Whether you turn to friends, family, a counsellor, or a spiritual leader, there is help available to you.

Oh… and an essay’s due
Students must consider not only how a tragedy might affect their personal life, but their academic one as well. The consensus among experts and the students interviewed is that although it is obviously preferable to have these events not occur at all, it is in fact advantageous to have them happen during university.

“If anything, for many people, there are more safeguards and protections built into university programs than there are [into] jobs,” said Hunsley.

He further commented that speaking with your professor should be a high priority to ensure you can stay on top of your academics.

“If someone is ill or has a real difficulty dealing with an issue, the first step is to deal with the course professor,” he said. “In some cases, it may be possible to get an extension [on assignments]. In other cases where it is not feasible to do that, the university system has regulations where you can get a physician’s or psychologist’s note and accommodations can be made.”

There are multiple options for approaching school work when a serious life event occurs. Although some choose to compartmentalize and focus on academic productivity, others choose deferrals and university-approved postponements.

“I can remember I had assignments due,” recalled Miles. “It was kind of crazy. I missed some school just due to grief and the funeral. Professors were … very understanding, and willing to postpone stuff but [it was] the counselling services [that] were invaluable.”

Tetley, on the other hand, chose to use her academics as a distraction from her personal turmoil.

“I was really worried because I was leaving my two younger brothers back home, so I felt like I was just leaving them behind to deal with [my parents’ divorce],” she said. “I felt really guilty. I looked forward to school and I knew it would help me get my mind off things.”

Although she too decided to keep her focus on academics, Soule did so not as a distraction but out of a sense of responsibility.

“I’ve kept my assignments pretty straight,” she said. “I just kind of felt like [my aunt is] gone, but it didn’t seem to me that I should shirk my responsibilities as a student. I didn’t want to use it as an excuse. If I keep going, it’s like I’m strong enough to do it for her.”

Martin explained there are ways to get exams or assignments deferred when tragedy is overwhelming.

“There’s a service on campus, one of the SASS services, called access services. Their role is to help with accommodations or exam deferments when students have not a temporary situation, but a more long-term one, like a learning disability or a diagnosed condition,” he explained. “[Students dealing with a tragedy] can go to access service, and they [may] set up accommodations for all of their exams if they need more time or anything like that. We do sometimes write notes for special accommodation … because it is just a temporary one-time thing.”

Keep calm and carry on
The good news is this: According to Hunsley, not only will the pain of a personal loss dissipate over time, but it can help us. Through difficulties we can flourish.

“People tend to be very resilient. In fact, some research suggests that it’s quite possible for people to actually grow emotionally and psychologically as a result of these kinds of things. It may lead them to question some of their assumptions about priorities in life, or re-evaluate lifestyle or relationship issues,” he said. “Tragedy assumes a bad ending, and that is not necessarily the case … I don’t like the word tragedy, because they are opportunities to grow.”

That may be easier said than done. Students struggle to maintain a balance between their education and their personal lives, but when a situation forces the two together, there are systems in place to ease the struggle. No matter what your situation is, who your friends are, or what you believe in, we live in a university community of over 39,000 students. There is help, and there is someone who cares.

 *Names have been changed