Death in the Campus Community

The death of a Luther student, faculty member, or staff member often has a strong and far-reaching impact on members of the Luther community. The impact for students is often quite profound if a student dies, if the death is sudden, and if the death occurs on campus. A death by suicide is very difficult. Students generally have less experience dealing with death than do faculty and staff members and may not yet have well-developed personal resources for dealing with major loss in their lives. Certainly those who had a direct and close connection with the deceased will be deeply affected. But even those who only knew the deceased indirectly or casually will also be affected. It is difficult and disturbing for college students to experience the death of a peer.

Faculty and staff members may also be strongly affected by a death in the campus community, especially when they have had a significant connection with the person who dies. The impact for faculty and staff may be particularly strong when they experience the death of a close colleague.

Please see the section of this web site on grieving loss for information on normal responses to loss and how to help someone who is grieving.

In addition to offering each other mutual support, faculty and staff members who are grieving may wish to talk with one of the college pastors. Another resource is the college’s Employee Assistance Program. This program offers both telephone consultation and three in-person visits with a local counselor.

In the aftermath of a death on campus, faculty may have opportunities to offer individual support to students. Students usually prefer to talk with people they already know and with whom they have an established connection. While some students may wish to talk with counselors or college pastors, many feel more comfortable talking with their friends, parents, professors, work-study supervisors, or with faculty or staff with whom they have a bond through a co-curricular activity. It can be very helpful to students to talk with adults whom they respect, who have the benefit of more life experience, and who have dealt with death and loss in their own lives. You offer students a great deal simply by your willingness to be present with them and to listen to their experience. You do not need to have answers for them or ways to help them feel better quickly.

In addition to offering individual support to students, faculty members will have opportunities in the classroom to acknowledge a recent death in the Luther community. You may also choose to initiate some brief conversation with your students about the death and their reactions to it. Here are some suggestions about how you might do this.

  • It would be helpful to at least acknowledge a recent death and the fact that many students have probably been affected by it, even if they did not have a direct connection to the person who died.
  • Make students aware of support resources on campus, including faculty and staff with whom students have a connection, residence hall staff, Counseling Service, and College Ministries. Alert students to any group gatherings that are planned in relation to the death. Inform them about a campus memorial service, if one has been scheduled.
  • If you choose to offer an opportunity for some conversation about the death during class, discussion can be brief. The beginning of class is probably the best time.
  • Simply state that you are aware of the recent death of _________ and that you want to offer an opportunity for some brief conversation about what this has been like for your students.
  • Give permission for any students who were close to the deceased to leave class, if they would rather not be present for a class conversation.
  • Acknowledge that even if students did not have a direct or close connection to the deceased, they may nevertheless still be affected by the death. Acknowledge that it can be difficult and disturbing to experience the death of a peer. Acknowledge that for some students, the recent death on campus may trigger thoughts and feelings about important losses in their own lives.
  • Acknowledge the “facts” of the death (for instance, that the student who died was a sophomore student who died in an auto accident the previous weekend, or was a junior who collapsed and died in her residence hall room two days earlier). Try to correct any incorrect rumors about the death.
  • Invite students to offer any of their own reactions to the death that they wish to share.
  • Facilitate conversation with questions like:
    • What do you find yourself thinking about or questioning?
    • How has learning of this death affected you?
    • What about this death has impacted you the most?
    • What about this death do you struggle with?
    • What has been helpful to you in dealing with the news of this death?
    • If you are trying to support someone who was close to the person who died, what is that like for you?
  • Help students understand that for those close to the person who died, grieving will be a process over time and each person has to find their own particular path through grief.
  • If students wonder how best to support someone who is grieving, share the material from the Counseling Service web site.
  • Let students know it is normal to seek an “explanation” or “reason” when someone dies, especially with the sudden death of a young person, but often the “facts” do not provide a reason that feels adequate. Acknowledge that students may be trying to make sense of or find meaning in the death and this is truly a difficult challenge that takes time to deal with. Resist the temptation to try to make meaning for the students.
  • Encourage students to engage in good self-care: adequate sleep, regular meals, exercise, relaxation with friends, time with supportive people, activities that improve energy and mood, activities that nurture one’s spiritual life, and to avoid excessive alcohol use.
  • Close by thanking students for sharing and remind them again of support resources on campus.