Students' Perceptions of Stress When Experiencing Loss and the Support From Academia That is Needed

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Kathleen M. Bell, EdD, MS
Nursing, St. Catherine University, Saint Paul, MN, USA


This presentation will explore the results of a 2015 dissertation regarding students who experienced loss through death within the prior 12 months. Students attending colleges and universities often have complex lives, which may include the experience of loss of someone close during an academic year at rates of 20-30 percent (Balk, Walker, & Baker, 2010; Boynton Health Service, 2013. The demographics of the United States reflect an aging population, increasing the chance of the death of the students’ close relatives (Portman, Velkoff, & Hogan 2014).

Experiencing loss and the grief that follows can jeopardize educational goals. Because of the preponderance for experiencing loss for students, this author chose to research the stresses with loss that community college students experience and possible ways colleges can support.

Students may not always be able to prioritize their education while grieving and experiencing the secondary ramifications of loss. Their familial role may change, there may be financial and/or household details to be addressed, travel may be necessary to attend the funeral, and the students may experience emotional upheaval. Missing time can be detrimental to progression in nursing programs that are attendance driven and focus on a professional track of study. Additionally, for many students, their commitment to continue academically may depend on their integration into the college experience (Tinto, 2012). Colleges have not historically been responsive to supporting students who experience grief and loss, except during catastrophic experiences that may affect a community nearby or the college itself. Additionally, staff and faculty may not know how to address the issues of grief and loss experienced by students.

Assisting students through the immediacy of experiencing loss may not be enough help. Grief from loss can linger for months, if not years, in the form of complicated grief (Fox & Jones, 2013; Shear, 2012). Anecdotal comments of those who have experienced loss may include, “After the death, all was a blur, or I don’t remember how I got through that time.” Therefore, academic institutions and nursing need an understanding of the short and long term ramifications of grief and loss.

While reviewing quantitative data from multi-year research of the Boynton Health Service of the University of Minnesota (2013), this researcher was struck by the following student survey response: 20 percent of students, who participate in the studies, stated that death of someone close was their number one stressor, the highest ranked response of the stressors’ category. This response rate ranks above the intensity of stress caused by relationships and financial challenges, which college students also report as stressors (Boynton Health Service, 2013). This researcher worked in hospice care as a registered nurse for over ten years prior to making a career change to education. This involvement with dying and death, and experiencing a number of personal losses in my adult life, led to a focus on this aspect of the University of Minnesota’s research. The topic had a level of being personal and the topic grew in interest. Time had passed since my personal losses and Maxwell (2013) suggests that the researcher assess personal desires regarding the choices of research questions, selection of settings and participants, data collection, and analysis to gain insight into the impact on conclusions in order to prevent a flawed or bias study.

In my recent past role as an administrator in higher education, it became necessary to counsel students who request decision-making advice regarding academic progression after experiencing recent loss of someone close. The variables are complex in a context of personal goals, prior experiences with death, the relationship with the deceased, and cultural and religious beliefs. An example is whether to stay in school while actively grieving or perhaps facing issues of missing school to attend lengthy death rituals mandatory within the student’s culture.

In order to strengthen a college campus’s response to students experiencing loss, there are a number of considerations. Are faculty and staff, including counselors, comfortable with loss and able to listen intently to a student’s story of loss? Additionally, are staff up-to-date in the unfolding theories of loss and support for the bereaved? Does the college campus have multicultural staff to relate to students and understand bereavement responses from a cultural perspective? These are questions for each institution to evaluate so that students can continue on with their academic journey during a time of loss and mourning.

Assisting people, including students, through the complexities of bereavement or grief involves a number of disciplines with nursing being deeply involved. Therefore, it is imperative that nurse educators recognize a dual role of educating students on loss and grief as well as supporting students experiencing loss. Balk (2011) writes that the impact of bereavement on a person is physical, cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, behavioral, and spiritual, words that demonstrate nursing’s holistic model of care.

Nursing historically honored the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who identified five stages of grief, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Kübler-Ross Foundation, 2016). Archer (1999/2000) believes Kübler-Ross’s work was inspired by Bowlby’s stage theory and her work was based on observations of her dying patients, rather than bereaved individuals, and therefore, her work has also been disputed due to the stages extrapolated for bereaved individuals rather than the dying and it was observational-based rather than developed from empirical data (Bonanno, 2009; Bugless, 2010). Another model is the dual process model (DPM) of coping with bereavement, which describes coping, predicting adaptation, and strives for a better understanding of individual differences (Stroebe & Schut, 2010).


This presentation will be based on my 2015 dissertation that used mixed methods research methodology to discover aspects of what a set of community college students were experiencing after loss. The mixed-method research included a survey, interviews, and artifact review. Triangulation of data assists to broaden understanding of the issues, and add validity to the findings (Maxwell, 2013). This study used a constructivist framework because the research relied on the participants’ views of the situation and recognizes the impact of the researcher’s background and experiences (Mackenzie & Knipe, 2006). The constructivist paradigm was chosen with consideration to the complexities of individuals experiencing loss due to history with the deceased, roles, familial, cultural, and spiritual considerations, circumstances regarding the death, and how a person makes meaning and is able to articulate their inner thoughts. The complexity of the loss experience may interplay with the meaning attached to attending college and how the person perceives the academic institution.

The primary research question of the dissertation was: What are community college students’ perceptions of stress when experiencing loss through death of someone close? A secondary question was: What support is available and needed from a community college for students experiencing stress from loss?


The results of this research indicate that students were experiencing stress related to their loss. The survey analysis suggests that 78% of these community college students who had experienced loss had stress levels that were staying the same or increasing. The students reported that their feelings, difficulty studying, getting through school, keeping up with class, and finding emotional relief as the main stress concerns.

Only one-fifth of survey respondents discussed their loss with anyone on campus and classmate, instructor, and friend were the most common responses of whom the students spoke with at the college. Multicultural students spoke less with instructors and more frequently with counselors, classmates, friends, or support services’ personnel. Thirty-seven percent of the students completing the survey reported experiencing the loss of more than one person and grandmother (35%) and friend (30%) were the most common reported loss. Respondents request that a place to go for privacy was the number one request for support.

All seven interviewees experienced physical illness, accidents, and/or an increase in psychological symptoms with their loss. Additionally, interviewees found that continuing with their studies provided a needed structure and they often continued as a commitment to the deceased. The interviewees were articulate about stress management techniques that include phone apps, children, cooking, journaling, drinking, group support, and friends. Each of the student participants interviewed spent time discussing the situation surrounding the death of their loved one. The process of storytelling provides a cathartic function and creates a reality and gives words to grief (Hooghe, Neimeyer, & Rober, 2011). Six of the seven cried during the interview at multiple times, demonstrating the outpouring of grief continued and they also smiled and laughed. Those interviewed disclosed issues involving their loss and issues of negative family dynamics, mental health challenges, and experiences with specific instructors on campus. One student, who disclosed a number of personal issues, said that this researcher was the first adult to offer words of hope, a sad statement.


The findings of this research have implications for developing support for students by staff, faculty, and administration of community colleges and other academic institutions. Results from this study support the need for a college-wide policy for bereavement in that students had mixed responses from faculty and students did not know options for an academic leave or campus support.