Kubler-Ross Grief Model and COVID-19 Crisis for College Students

Kubler-Ross Grief Model and COVID-19 Crisis for College Students

Rory Kelly
Editorial Contributor

With dorms closed and classrooms empty, college academic life resumes via Zoom and Google Docs while students maintain connection with peers through social media, texts, and FaceTime. Attempting to work on a comfy couch, sharing not-quite-enough outlets among family members, and relearning how to survive without the daily opportunity for soft serve ice cream are some of the everyday changes that many college students face now as a result of university COVID-19 response plans. Other students face bigger challenges, such as an unreliable or nonexistent internet connection at home, childcare duties, financial stressors, coping with remote learning while having a disability, or having family members fall ill. Though even mild inconveniences and shifts may make the ongoing transition less smooth, students face much heavier and graver challenges when it comes to caring for their health and wellbeing in the face of a pandemic, a slowing economy, separation from friends and professors, reduced access to academic and other resources, and for some, a restricted sense of independence moving back in with family.

The abrupt closings of many university and college campuses did not leave time for students to finish the spring term, attend all celebrations, events, and even spontaneous warm afternoon gatherings on the quad, and often to even pack their belongings. As much of the country settles into work from home routines, these students are likely still processing what happened a month earlier and grieving the losses of what won’t happen this spring, in addition to transitioning to remote learning.

Many associate grief primarily with the death of a loved one, though we experience grief in a variety of settings and circumstances just as we experience loss in various circumstances: breakups, moving to a new city, being injured and unable to participate in a favorite hobby, even parting with characters from a great book or television show. As such, many college students may find themselves experiencing what is commonly known as the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The Five Stages of Grief, also known as the Kubler-Ross model, was initially based on the experiences of terminally ill individuals. It is not necessarily a linear process, and not every person will engage in all of the stages. In the case of COVID-19 university closures, one student in denial may have not unpacked his/her/their things in hopes of returning to campus, while another may not want to talk about the virus or new remote classes. Anger may surface with family members in the student’s house or frustrated demands to the administration for a mandated pass/fail grading system this spring. Folks who find themselves bargaining may think, “If only this could have happened two weeks later; I could have gone on spring break with my friends like we’ve been planning since last year,” or “I’d be fine if my school hadn’t cancelled commencement.” The fourth stage of grief, depression, is what people most often associate with grieving: crying, inability to enjoy pleasurable activities, isolation from friends, and loved ones, and so on. As with all the other stages, acceptance looks different for each and every student, nor are the first moments of acceptance the final destination for most, as one can swing between any of the five stages or other emotional states following a loss or even in the future when reminded of the loss.

During this time, we must be gentle with our students. Loss of classroom interaction, of shared meals in the dining hall, of on-campus academic and wellbeing resources, of sports games, of club gatherings, of study abroad and internship experiences, of what many end up feeling are “a fast four years” are some of the student-specific challenges college students face, in addition to the challenges we all face together. Reach out to the students in your life. Support them in whatever stage of grief they find themselves and whatever that looks like.

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