Campus Life

Campus Support Services for Student With Terminally Ill Parent

Question: Hello, and thank you for this wonderful resource! I would like to know if you could speak about ways to assess (i.e., questions to ask) a college's behavioral health resources for students. My husband is terminally ill. We know he may get worse while our daughter is in college. I want to ask questions to try to ascertain how much support she may receive and how flexible school policies are if she has a bad semester. Thank you again.

I'm so sorry to hear about your husband's illness. The college search and application process is stressful enough without this added burden.


I'm no expert when it comes to navigating the murky waters that lie ahead for you. I also can’t tell from your question whether your daughter is a high school senior who may be in the throes of making a final college choice this week or if she is a younger student whose college list is undecided. But, in either case, I suggest that, once your daughter has compiled a list of colleges she is considering, you (or she) should write (via email) to the director of the counseling services at each one. You will be able to find the name and contact information on the college Web site or--if that turns out to be too much of a treasure hunt--simply call the school's main phone number and ask the receptionist to connect you to the health services to get the info you need.

In your initial email, explain the situation and ask what sorts of services are available to students. Your questions could include:

1) How big is the counseling staff? (Be wary of large colleges with minimally staffed departments)

2) What is the typical wait-time for appointments?

3) Is there a support group on campus for students dealing with similar issues?

4) Is there an on-site psychiatrist (who can prescribe medications, if required)?

5) If a student requests (or requires) a leave of absence, is this coordinated through the counseling services or through an academic administrator? If so, which administrator?

When assessing which colleges might be the best fits for your daughter, you should compare the specific answers you receive (assuming you do get an answer in the first place!) and, above all, be sensitive to how thorough and caring each response seems to be.

You might also want to contact the academic administrator named in question #5. It would be worthwhile to inquire about college policies regarding tuition reimbursement, should your daughter be unable to complete a term. Chances are, you will receive no refund, but there may be an option for your daughter to finish missed work independently so that she doesn’t lose ground and you don’t lose money. You can also ask about Withdraw policies, should your daughter decide to take time off in mid-semester. If your daughter doesn’t already have a college list, she might want to include colleges that don’t grade at all, such as Hampshire or Evergreen State. Or perhaps she might be interested in a school on the “Block Plan” like Colorado College or Cornell College in Iowa, where students take only one course at a time for intensive three-week mini-terms.

Four decades ago, my own dad died in March of my freshman year at Smith. Back then, it never occurred to me to contact the counseling services. (In fact, I think that these “services” were comprised of one part-time practitioner) but I did notify my professors individually and asked for extensions when necessary. Not surprisingly, all of them were very compassionate and compliant.

A few years ago, a young man I know lost his father during his final freshman weeks at Brown. The death was a suicide, so it was unexpected and extremely traumatic. The Brown administration, faculty, and financial aid offices all bent over backwards to help this family. The boy ended up taking Incompletes in his courses and finishing them on his own over the summer. He then took a year’s leave of absence and returned to Brown as a sophomore after the hiatus.

Even more recently, my cousin’s husband died of cancer when her daughter was a freshman at Northeastern. Again, the school administration and faculty were extremely flexible when it came to allowing extensions, but the student didn’t miss a big chunk of the term.

Leaving home while her dad is critically ill will probably be tough for your daughter no matter which college she chooses, but I think that the chances are good that she will find lots of support and understanding, wherever she lands.

Best wishes to all of you as you endure the trials that lie ahead.

(posted 4/29/2011)