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Commentary: How to stay on track with college when grieving

By Ayanna Smith (Special to ONME News)

Ayanna Smith is a senior majoring in journalism at California State University, Northridge and a member of EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps. The opinions in this commentary are those of the author.

When my dad got sick in October 2019, I never imagined I would be saying goodbye to him four years later in the middle of the semester.

Even though I had gotten used to my dad being sick, I hoped he would be better by the time I graduated from California State University, Northridge with my bachelor’s degree in May 2024. Unfortunately, things had gotten worse. On Saturday, Feb. 4 at 7 a.m. my father passed away, and by the time I got to the hospital he was already gone.

As I grappled with the news about my dad, my first thought was, “How do I navigate a life without him?” since he had been there all my life. Through the initial shock and sadness I felt, I found some peace knowing that he wasn’t suffering anymore. But my father was one of my main support systems and was looking forward to attending my graduation. In the spring 2023 semester I had to deal with the fact that he was gone and focus on school while trying to grieve.

At the time I was taking four courses, all of which needed my attention as it was close to midterm exams. I worried I would fail. Although I wanted to honor my dad’s wishes that I finish school, I also wanted to quit. After the funeral in March, my challenge was how to finish out the semester strong while holding on to my mental health.

I know strong mental health is especially important in tough situations such as these, so I restarted therapy and sought additional support from campus counseling services. My family and friends were a main source of comfort. My mom wouldn’t let me give up, and she always gave me a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, and someone who I could lean on. I also believe that writing in my journal and writing for my dad’s funeral helped me with my loss, as well.

Yet I had missed three weeks of classes in a row, along with the earlier classes I did not attend because I was emotionally drained during his illness. I watched as my grades fell, and I got less motivated to do my assignments or go to class.

I contemplated dropping out and taking a year off. But I knew this is not what my dad would want, and ultimately, not what I would want. I knew I had to overcome the challenges of making up those assignments, getting the information I missed from my classmates, and trying to attend school while adapting to my new life.

Fortunately, my professors were very willing to extend deadlines for upcoming assignments and offered to support me with anything I needed. I was grateful that they were so sympathetic and understood that I needed to take the time to grieve.

I contacted them all by email to let them know of my situation, and for faster responses, I used Canvas, our learning management system, to ask for extensions. My professors sent back very understanding responses like “I’m sorry for your loss,” and “Take the time you need,” and did not hesitate to grant me the extensions. They also allowed me to turn in any assignments I had missed.

I also had an option that CSUN and other California State University campuses provide: taking a leave of absence. While I ultimately didn’t end up using this, it was reassuring to know this option existed.

Because 1 in 3 college students ages 18-23 has lost at least one loved one in the past year, it might be wise for more campuses to have defined policies about missing school due to a death. While I was lucky with my professors’ willingness to accommodate me, I don’t know how I would have handled an opposite response. A campus liaison who could help with contacting professors and finding resources would take that stress off.

Despite not having my dad, I am happy to say that I was able to pass all my classes with a “C” or better. I was glad that I didn’t make the choice of taking a leave of absence or dropping out. I was also happy to have the support I needed to get to that point at the end of the semester.

This was by far the biggest, most daunting challenge of my time in college. Although my father won’t be there to see me cross the stage and witness me getting my diploma next year, I am confident that I will be there, and I know he’ll be cheering me on from above.


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