When your son or daughter goes to university or college, it’s an exciting time for them with the promise of making new friends, gaining new experiences, and learning new things. While parents may share their child’s excitement, they can also struggle with no longer being so intimately involved in their day-to-day life and worry about how they are getting on.

The death of a young person while attending university or college can be very difficult for parents who may feel guilty that they were unaware of aspects of their child’s life at university or college.

Receiving the news that your child has died

Being told the news that your child has died while at university/college is likely to be devastating. The emotional impact of the news will be made even more difficult if you are located a long distance from where your child studied or if you are unable to get there, for instance if they are studying abroad.

Many parents tell us that when their child dies, they are unable to concentrate on even the simplest task and feel a sense of complete helplessness.  Be kind to yourself and give yourself time to absorb what has happened before trying to cope with the practical and logistical challenges.  The first few days are likely to be full of complex practical issues which focus on how your child died, rather than on how they lived. You may have many mixed thoughts and emotions or feel completely detached. You may have an immediate need to find answers or feel ‘frozen’ in disbelief.

If possible, ask someone you trust to come to the university/college with you to support you. It can help too to let the Student Welfare Team know when you are coming so that they can provide coordinated support through the inevitable practical challenges; some universities/colleges will assign a named contact who will support you, communicating on your behalf with flatmates, for example, students on the same course, academic staff involved in teaching your child, and members of any clubs and societies of which they were a member.

How can I tell others what has happened?

You may also need to share the news with other family members which can be enormously difficult, particularly if you don’t know all the details. Try not to expect too much of yourself but give yourself time to absorb the news yourself before trying to tell others what has happened. If you can, ask someone you trust to be with you when you break the news or ask them to share the news for you and explain that you will share more information as it becomes available.

I don’t know how my child died at university/college

If a young person has died suddenly or as a result of violence, substance abuse or suicide, you may not immediately be informed of the cause of death which can be very upsetting. This can be particularly difficult if speculation about the circumstances of your child’s death is being shared by other students on social media. The university/college’s student welfare service or chaplain should be able to liaise with you and provide you with accurate information about what has occurred. Most universities/colleges will also help with any media enquiries if this is an issue.

Why didn’t I know about my child’s life at university/college?

While you may have been close to and known your child well, there may be aspects of their life at university/college about which you didn’t know. This can be particularly painful if your child dies as you may feel guilty that you didn’t know they were ill, were in danger or were engaging in risky behaviour such as drug taking. Although this is hard, it is important to accept that your child was an adult and living an adult life – you were not responsible for everything that happened in their life, nor could you have been aware of every aspect of their daily life.

You may also discover things about your child that bring you pleasure such as new things they were interested in, academic success and new friends they made. These can be part of building memories which can sustain you in your grief. Consider talking to your child’s friends and tutor to build a picture of their life at the university/college.

How can I deal with the practical aspects of dealing with my child’s death at university/college?

Practical aspects of your child’s death at university/college such as clearing their room or dealing with university/college departments may feel very daunting. The university/college’s Student Welfare team may be able to reduce the stress for you by coordinating communication with different departments such as the landlords of the halls of residence, Student Finance, and academic staff.

How can I communicate with my child’s university/college friends

Your child may have friends who may want to express their sadness at your child’s death or share their memories of them. If you feel you would like this, you could ask to speak to them, invite them to contact you directly or ask the university/college’s Student Welfare Team to liaise with them – they may already be working with your child’s friends to support them.

How can university/college help to remember my child?

Some families find it helpful to liaise with the university/college and their child’s friends regarding a memorial event or service for their child or something such as a having a bench made on campus in their memory or a book of condolence. If you would welcome your child’s friends attending the funeral or memorial service, the university/college may be able to help with coordinating this.

If your child was in the final year of their course, some universities/colleges will include your child in a graduation ceremony, awarding their degree or other award posthumously. If this is something you would like, you can discuss this with the university/college and think together about how this could best be managed.