Tips for Parents

Good Grief: For Parents of College Students

Charlie Brown got it right. There is such a thing as good grief.

As students head to college, parents across the nation are experiencing grief in one form or another. A natural process, grieving accompanies change, even when it’s good change. Some universities, according to a New York Times article, are finding new ways to deal with parents’ grief by ushering them off campus, thereby hastening the separation process and helping students kick off their independence quickly.

Some colleges have parting ceremonies, others designate a time and place for all parents to attend a reception while their students finish moving in and others have printed schedules that instruct parents on when to leave campus. For parents who feel the pressure to let go, it’s more than a simple process of hugging their children goodbye and heading home.

Jill Hayman, a mother interviewed in the NYT article, said she’s always dreaded the day she had to “let go” of her son. “I think the pressure starts when the umbilical cord falls off,” she said.

To help her deal with the changes, Hayman said she has read books about the stages of grief to help her experience the loss and grieve over what’s gone.

And parents should grieve an empty nest, or even just a slightly emptier nest, for parents with children still at home. A child growing up is natural and necessary, but that doesn’t make it any easier. By recognizing, allowing and even laughing about the grieving process, parents can healthfully cope with their family’s change and emerge happy and well-adjusted.

For parents in the midst of grief, take comfort in the fictional Smith family. Jan, the mother, experiences the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — with her daughter’s transition to college:

Denial: Jan pulls out the baby books, dusts off the VCR and pops in some hefty home videos, and runs her finger along the lace of her daughter’s first dress. She nostalgically remembers how she loved the smell of her baby’s head as it lay in the crook of her arm. This remembering is all well and good until the denial reaches its peak, and Jan starts humming nursery rhymes under her breath, inviting her daughter to sing and clap along. Jan’s daughter responds by slowly inching away.

Anger: In the weeks leading up to college move-in day, doors slam a lot more in the Smith household. Jan and her daughter argue, and emotions run rampant. For Jan, a pile of dirty dishes in the sink represents 18 years of raising a daughter who doesn’t appreciate all her parents do for her. That or Jan dreads the near future when an empty sink means her daughter isn’t home. Either way, a fight erupts, anger thinly masking all the underlying emotion.

Bargaining: Spending time with a teenager can be like grasping for straws. For Jan, this gets worse as college approaches. Her tactic? Bargaining. “Sure, I’ll buy your dorm stuff for you. But only if you spend the day with me.” Or “You can go hang out with your friends, but only if you come home and play Checkers with me. Remember how much you used to love that game?” At the height of this stage, Jan bargains with God: “If I let her go, will you please take care of her for me?”

Depression: The night before Jan’s daughter goes off to college is tearful. There’s no denying that things are about to change for the family. There’s no room for anger or outbursts of emotion, because the moments of life as they know it are numbered. And there’s no amount of bargaining that can buy time and postpone the future. But somewhere past the sadness, Jan has an inkling that it’s going to be OK.

Acceptance: Once the cyclone of change has swept through the Smith household, anxiety turns to excitement. Jan’s daughter calls and shares tales of new friends, interesting classes and dorm shenanigans. A few weeks go by, life settles for Jan, and the period of transition has been followed by peaceful contentment.

With this scenario in mind, parents can pinpoint some of their emotions and responses as they experience this transition. The nostalgia, anger, bargaining and depression can be expected. Talk about your grief and emotions with other parents or family. Allow yourself to feel these things. But for the sake of your student’s sanity, don’t go around singing nursery rhymes. Good grief.