Interacting with students when mourning.

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A very close family member passed away this weekend.  I sent an email canceling class, just a single class session, and added thoughtful guidance for students' ongoing projects.  My email made clear, tersely, that the loss was devastating.  I also made clear that I'd make myself even more available to students in the following weeks to make up for missed time.  Perhaps my grief should have been more performative, however, since several students emailed to the effect of: Sorry for your loss but here's my needlessly panicky question about my project.  One even wrote "Sorry for your loss -- I hope everything is well."  Within her abilities she meant well, I guess.

I know empathy's shot among the young.  But these instances have left me appalled and angry at an already draining time.  Apart from abstaining from reading their emails, and delaying the reply to let silence speak for a while, any suggestions for making this a moral teaching moment without sharing my personal situation with them?

You've already shared too much information with them.  By telling them about your loss, you gave them an excuse to express sympathy, which gave them the capital for the followup questions.

It took me a while to learn this.  The last time I canceled class for family deaths (funerals for a sibling and an in-law on opposite coasts in one week) I told the class absolutely nothing except "I will be out of town for the week on pressing personal business, and will not be answering email."  My TA knew and so the class learned what was happening, but since I had not raised the issue none of the students felt entitled to start an email by mentioning it. - DvF

I know that when things are raw, people who make expressions of sympathy in a "wrong" way can seem very hurtful.  But your students are still allowed to ask you questions.  I think the fact that they expressed sympathy, instead of just blazing ahead and asking the question, is actually admirable and as much as kids their age can be expected to do.  Let's face it, even adults are frequently blockheads about expressing sympathy, as nearly anyone who's been bereaved can testify.  After my mother died, I was absolutely incensed at the behavior of some people in our circle, some of whom were even relatives.  For instance, I had bought a video for my mother to watch, and it arrived after she died.  Just looking at it made me burst into tears.  Yet one of my relatives, knowing the story, picked it up and said, "Shall we watch this one tonight?"  I had to disappear for a while and fume and cry and shake my fist.

In retrospect, I see that I was so raw that I couldn't give any of them the benefit of the doubt.  By and large people really do mean well, and they are so at a loss in the face of grieving that they're stuck.  And it's not as if our culture gives people many cues on how to behave, other than "Ignore it."

That's apart from the fact that we're called upon to present a professional front to our students, and not involve them overmuch in our private lives.  Not to say that we have to behave like automata.  But we put them in a difficult position when they still have to be students and study and try to get a good grade in the class, and we ask them to respond to our grief.  The two aims are often incompatible.

But you have enough on your plate in coping with your grief and getting through the days without worrying about what your students say.  Don't let them add to everything you have to deal with.  The real problem is not the students.  Take care of yourself and try not to dwell on small difficulties like this.  I'm sorry to hear about your loss.

I'm sorry for what you are going through.  Little things can seem like big things at such times. 

I had a different experience with my students.  I was teaching an online summer class when I lost a close family member. I told my class that I would be out of town and why (in a few words), and told them to expect a substantial delay in answering emails.  Quite a few students sent condolences (often in awkward and horribly misspelled messages), which I appreciated.  Some of their emails were quite moving.   One or two also tried to discuss class business, which I ignored.

Of course, an online class is a different animal from a regular class.  I was able to set my pre-prepared lecture so that it would become visible at the appropriate time, and let the class discussion continue without my steering, so the disruption was less.  Also, I could log on and attend to class business when I felt like it (it was sometimes a relief to get away from the whole family and funeral thing for a while).  It  was the first time I had ever felt glad that I have to teach this particular class online. It would have been far harder had the class been a in-person class or had it been during the semester, when I'd have been teaching two other classes too.

However, my point was that I found most of the students were trying to be kind in offering condolences.  Many of my students are a little older than traditional college age, and perhaps more experienced in what's appropriate to say and do when someone's had a loss.

On review: Hegemony makes some great points. 

I am sorry for your loss.
I went through something like this, which I shared with the forum.  I had a hard time not being completely shook up.
Your students come first. I mean this in the kindest way possible.

Give yourself permission to grieve alone, but your students need you to carry on.


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