Unexpected Learning From Student’s Experiences of Loss

This past summer I lost a friend at church and a family friend to terminal illness and through these experiences, I’ve grown more aware how often death and dying emerges at my stage in the life course. Apparently I wasn’t alone in this either. I happened to be in conversation with the university chaplain one day a couple of months ago, and he remarked that while he had a total of 40 cases in which students lost a parent or significant family member last year, he has had 50 cases in the first two months of this semester alone. The reasons for this still elude me, but suffice it to say something that is a fairly rare occurrence is recurring with somewhat more frequency lately here in central Texas.

Recently a former student of mine informed that she too had experienced the loss of her mother. Lisa [not her real name] was in my class 3 semesters ago, she was relatively quiet but clearly focused, and she performed well in her writing assignments and tests. However her absences grew more and more frequent, until one day she sent an email to her teachers saying that her mother was gravely ill. Judging from some of her writing and her communications, this student came from a vulnerable minority community somewhere in the southwest US. Later I would learn that she was of Navajo descent and lived on a reservation where her mother served as a healthcare worker.

I remember from that semester the internal conflict she voiced between wanting to please her mother by completing her education and pursue an advanced medical degree, and staying by her side while her health continually declined. The stress got to be unbearable, and she sought counsel from the chaplain’s office who then requested faculty and administrators to provide her a supportive leave of absence. I had heard nothing from her until late in the summer when she submitted additional materials that were incompletes in the previous semester. Lisa was determined to gain credit for the course she took with me. This young woman delivered well in her make-up exam and final writing assignments and passed the course. Whether her mother was doing better or worse at that point I thought was not appropriate to ask so all remained quiet.

Another semester had passed and I was relieved to hear from Lisa that she was back at Baylor in the spring of 2012. Knowing little of what had transpired in the past months I kept an optimistic outlook that she must be here with her mother’s blessing. And then I received news from her this past fall that her mother had passed. Lisa left the university once more to look after her mother, and she confided that she was one of her mother’s caregiver from her family, and I would gather that she was likely managing a fair amount of the details surrounding her funeral. There’s no doubt that Lisa’s mother’s passing affected her deeply and it became a source of inspiration for her to finish college and go on to advanced education.

As is my penchant for social science research, reflecting on Lisa’s message drove me to spend a couple of hours looking through the literature on the effects of the loss of a parent. I consulted Mark Regnerus and a couple of other colleagues who are much more familiar with this area of sociology than me. Turns out few were familiar with this topic in the research-sense. Mark drew me to his recent publication, a response to critics, using analyses from his much-controversial study, the National Family Structures Study. In the article based on the sample of over 3000 young adults, he included two family structures, one for those who had lost a parent while growing up and whose surviving parent remarried (if you access the full article see the Tables and look for column 12, 117 respondents) and another column for those who lost a parent and the surviving parent did not remarry (column 13, 28 respondents). I was most interested in the latter since such individuals were growing up in a single-parent household which is often linked with worse outcomes for kids. As it turns out, these few individuals who grew up in these challenging circumstances report higher overall happiness, lower clinical depression, lower impulsivity higher income (Tables 1 and 2) and less often in therapy compared to respondents who grew up in intact biological families – and this was the case even after accounting for the respondent’s age, gender, racial background, mother’s education, and household income while growing up. This was intriguing, what might explain this?

In personal correspondence, Mark attributed this to resilience in these respondents’ lives when they were younger. Indeed that is probably one factor for sure. Loss of a parent at any time is a character-shaping experience, but all the more so during one’s early formative years. Important too are the circumstances surrounding the passing of a parent. Was it due to accident, homicide, suicide, or untreatable illness? As it turns out previous research in this area known as child bereavement suggests that these differences do not statistically distinguish bereaved children in their mental health capacities. In another recent study researchers found that bereaved children were more likely to exhibit delinquent behaviors during their growing up years. Psychologically this makes sense: a child in such circumstances is acting out their felt sense of loss and injustice perhaps. If there is no good in the world, why strive to be good yourself?

If we connect this study with Regnerus’ work perhaps there is some intervention that takes place that helps these bereaved children rise above their own desire to act out. This is another explanation that a different colleague suggested to me. Communities, family and friends are generally more sympathetic and perhaps more supportive when one comes from a household with a widow or widower. Perhaps they can well interpret the acting out behavior as a cry for help and they respond in kind.

In the most recent email I received from this former student, she shared that the loss of her mother and caring for her through the ups and downs of longterm illness was difficult, she now interprets her experience as one that will make her into an excellent physician. Moreover she attributes her resilience in the context of her personal faith in a God who now comforts her mother. Indeed I was reminded once again of Margarita Mooney’s book title “Faith Makes Us Live” in thinking about this student and perhaps the many young people who struggle to make sense of their loss and pain.

This Thanksgiving I am grateful for students like Lisa who have helped me understand their lives better. By sharing some of their stories, I’m reminded that teaching is indeed very relational, and it is very often teachers themselves who learn more than they anticipated.

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