Loss among co-eds a rising concern
October 19, 2010 3:45 PM
Peter Ho was ready to board his plane to study abroad in Spain. A few days before leaving, he called his friend, Cameron Standish, and made plans to meet up later in the semester. After arriving at his destination, Ho went to an Internet cafe to tell his friends and family he arrived safely. He didn't get an answer from Cameron, so he sent an email. As weeks passed, there was still no reply.
One morning, he opened an email from Cameron's brother. Attached was Cameron's obituary, informing Ho that his 28-year-old friend passed away on August 30, 2009, five days after Ho left the country.
From the moment he read the first lines, Ho, then 22, began an experience he feels college students often face alone - grieving.
"You try to reach out, but you can't, there's nobody to reach out to," he said. "All you want to do is ignore your studies, ignore your friends and just be alone so you can have your connection with [the person you lost]," he said.
Derethia DuVal, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at SF State, said for the past five years, she's noticed more students who have lost peers coming in for counseling.
"Young people seem to be losing more friends, so we thought about doing a grief counseling group. It's a modern-day issue that older adults don't really know how to address," she said of older generations, such as her co-workers, who have realized they don't have any friends who have passed away.
At any given time, between 35 and 48 percent of university students are within two years of losing a close friend or relative, according to the National Students of Ailing Mothers and Fathers, the only national organization dedicated to helping grieving college students. The NSAMF launched the first annual National College Student Grief Awareness Week in universities across the country last April to educate universities about supporting bereaved students.
Breaking the silence surrounding grief is DuVal's message to students experiencing a loss, since the university environment can be a difficult place to cope, she said.
SF State doesn't have a grief support group, but DuVal said her department is aware of students' needs and will create a group if students demand it. She said bereaved students get personal counseling but most come in for other reasons, which is why there hasn't been a demand for a grief support group.
"They usually come in because they can't concentrate on their work or they don't know why they don't have any interests," she said. "But once they start talking, they say 'oh, my best friend just died," she said.
DuVal said many students have a hard time recognizing the grieving process. One of the most common misconceptions about grief is that it happens to someone and they must then be "healed."
"(Grief) isn't some time-limited illness," said Brian de Vries, professor of gerontology at SF State. "It's a change in our world views. It takes a lot (of time) for us to adapt."
He said people may feel they are "doing something wrong" if they still feel upset months or years after the loss.
Ho said some mornings he still feels irritated or sad for no reason and then realizes it's because he misses his friend.
Because college is generally viewed as a time for meeting new people and trying new things, DuVal said students will often try to put grief aside in order to carry on with academic responsibilities and social life.
Ho said he didn't have time to grieve in Spain and the loss became his last priority after school as he tried to focus on passing his classes.
This semester, between carrying 16 units and joining the International Education Exchange Council, Ho said he still doesn't have time to fully acknowledge the loss.
"Having to grieve adds to the already rigorous and stressful life of college," he said.
The University of California at Berkeley has a National Students of AMF grief support chapter and Mills College in Oakland is in the process of creating one.
Off-campus, San Francisco's Hospice By The Bay offers grief support groups and counseling sessions. On Dec 16, the organization will host a support group on coping with grief during the holidays.
De Vrie said reaching out shouldn't be seen as a defeat or shameful, but, as a way to get through the experience.
"It's a sign of courage and self respect to seek help and have our voices heard."
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