As it is, college can be hard. You are at the precipice of adulthood trying to build the foundation for a meaningful future, all the while juggling schoolwork, regular work, finances, social obligations, and the general stressors of independent living.
Yeah I know, we all have to grow up sometime, but this reality doesn’t change the fact that it can be hard to find your way. It may be the senility of old age talking, but you couldn’t pay me to be 21 again, not in a hundred years. Although in 100 years I will be 131 and at that point, I may have a different answer…perspective, people!
Where was I?
College can be hard and grieving while away at college can be darn near impossible. Grieving at college means handling the stressors of school and independence, while simultaneously dealing with the emotional, physical, and intellectual strain caused by the death of someone important to you. This strain encompasses feelings like anger, sadness, and isolation, and extends to the need to reconcile your sense of self, spirituality, and world-view. Most college students must balance this all while walking on a tight rope without their safety net. Don’t look down.
Litsa previously discussed her own experience dealing with grief while away at college and her struggle to find support, comfort, and understanding. Her college didn’t have any formal grief support mechanisms so eventually, she had to find solace elsewhere. Litsa’s experience isn’t unique and many young adults, unsure of where to look, often search in vain to find the outlets that feel right for them.
This is why today we want to shine a light on Actively Moving Forward (AMF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and empowering college students grieving the illness or death of a loved one. Their campus chapters consist of both peer-led support groups, where students grieving the illness or death of a loved one can relate to peers who have experienced similar circumstances, and service groups that help raise awareness and funds for causes important to chapter members.
Of course there’s no better way to get a feel for the organization than to hear it straight from them, so we recently asked their Director of Programming, Kiri Thompson, to answer a few questions. Please read through our brief interview and then hop over to their website to see if they have a chapter at a college or university near you.
What do you think is the biggest challenge(s) for students dealing with grief while in under-graduate/graduate school?
Grieving college students face a multitude of unique challenges at college. In many cases, they are away from home and their usual support networks, must negotiate often complicated academic and financial demands (particularly if their college doesn’t have a bereavement leave policy for students and most do not), and have few available support mechanisms (individual counseling is generally the only service offered on college campuses).
But perhaps the greatest challenge is the feeling of isolation from peers – feeling alone in grief when other students are focused on college life. What students do not realize is that an average of 1 in 4 students has experienced the illness or death of a close friend or family member within the year. So even though students may feel alone, there are many others on campus who may be going through similar experiences. AMF is here to connect those students and create a comfortable and open atmosphere for them to reduce their isolation and express their grief.
People are often hesitant to attend general support groups; they are apprehensive about what goes on, not sure if they will fit in, or just don’t know if it’s for them. What makes AMF different from traditional support groups?
AMF provides peer-led support groups on college campuses across the country. The national organization trains student leaders on how to get a peer-led support group up and going, but students are still students. They do not “run” the group, they are actually members. AMF is NOT counseling and we’re clear about this from the beginning. Groups provide nonjudgemental, open, and fun environment to connect with others.
Losing a loved one is often perceived to be a very sad and negative thing and it is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, experiences that many of our students face. Even still, there is a great depth and resilience that emerges through loss. When students come together, they are able to share their stories, share tips about getting through, and also talk about how the meaning in their lives is changing. Sometimes our groups go out to dinner, or just have social events to become true friends, sometimes grief is about the “other things” in life too.
Through these conversations, students engage in the second part of AMF groups, which is the service component. Each AMF chapter works as a group to determine what sort of service project they will take on each semester to honor their loved ones. These projects vary depending on the chapter and change from year to year. They provide a powerful and active way for students to channel their emotions, empower themselves and others, and honor loved ones. It seems that young men, in particular, often prefer the service component of the groups.
AMF is not meant to replace counseling or other supportive services on campus but is meant as something different that might work for those for whom traditional counseling or other services are not a good fit, or as something in addition to these services.
Do you think most students connected with your organization have experienced a recent loss, are further out from their loss, or a mix?
Students who participate in AMF groups range in their experiences of loss. Many have very recently lost a loved one and are just beginning to navigate through their grief. Other students may have lost a loved one a few years ago, but are still in need of support, or want to find continuing ways to honor their loved one and their experience of loss, to find new ways of expressing their grief as they continue on their journey. And finally, many of our students experienced a loss before college, and find that college brings up emotions of grief all over again. Or perhaps they are feeling OK in their grief journey, but want to connect with other students experiencing the same thing and help support them.
What would you tell someone who is on the fence about reaching out to your organization?
Just do it! AMF is a friendly organization. We are a small but passionate organization with a passion for supporting and empowering grieving college students in any way we can. You can reach out to me, Kiri Thopson (firstname.lastname@example.org), or fill out a form on our website to reach out. And we encourage students to reach out even if they are not sure that they want to be involved in an AMF group or start a group, we can just have a conversation about it. We encourage any student who is seeking more support in his or her grief journey to connect with us and we’ll do our best to find the best way to support you.
What if a grieving student attends a college where you don’t have a chapter? Can they connect with groups at other local colleges? What other resources do you offer that they might have access to? Is it difficult to start a chapter?
It is very easy to start a chapter! After a student reaches out to us, we have a video phone chat with the student to talk through the process of starting a chapter. Each chapter leader is assigned an AMF chapter coordinator (an AMF alumni) who helps that student on a daily basis to start his/her chapter.
The first steps are finding out how to become an officially recognized group on campus, connecting with a faculty advisor, and reaching out to a few other students who are interested in working with the group. National Students of AMF provides an online chapter toolkit with information on everything from the documents you’ll need to become officially recognized to promotional emails to email templates for reaching out to faculty. We also provide detailed information on how to run support groups and how to get started with service projects.
I monthly gather with students from across the country through a video call to share best practices, new helpful information as well as struggles and successes. This is a great opportunity for students to brainstorm and support each other, while also getting support from the National organization. Also, AMF pays for student leaders to attend the National Conference on College Student Grief held annually. Finally, AMF reimburses official chapters up to $150 per semester for costs associated with meetings, marketing, and service projects.
All of this said, some students are not ready to start a chapter – they are still managing their own responses to their grief and need immediate support – we understand and respect that. We try to connect students with chapters in their area whenever possible (even if at different schools) and provide a monthly webinar series to support and provide information to students and practitioners who may not have an AMF group nearby.
We don’t believe that you just “get over” your grief, but we will always help our students to keep Actively Moving Forward in their grief journey!
Many many thanks to Kiri for telling us a little about AMF. Don’t they sound amazing??
Now that you know a bit about their organization, we strongly encourage you to check them out. Take baby steps if you need to. Start with their website www.activelymovingforward.com and then go from there.
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