Bill Pannapacker writes about the dying grandmother problem — and for college teachers it’s a big one. Every semester, just as the big end-of-term assignments come around, the grandparents start dropping like flies. I haven’t known how to handle this any better than Pannapacker does, but a few weeks before his essay came out I was thinking of adding an item to my Frequently Asked Questions page along these lines: “If you tell me you can’t complete an assignment because of the death of a grandparent, I will need to have confirmation of that sad loss from one of your parents.” But students have trouble remembering these policies anyway, and I can imagine the look on a genuinely grief-stricken person’s face when I tell her I need to hear from her mom so I know she’s not lying. . . .

Really, there should be a variation on the Schrödinger’s Cat problem called the Student’s Grandparent problem.

When I think of these matters I always remember a strange experience I had once at my local Starbucks. I arrived during the morning rush and had to stand in a long line. Gradually it crept forward, but when I was just one person away from the register a young woman in a business suit came walking up, peering at the pastry case — just checking it out, her body language seemed to say. But then when the register was free she glided right to it and quickly placed her order.

I leaned forward and said in a quiet voice, “You really shouldn’t break in line like that” — at which she let out a loud cry, and wailed, “How dare you talk to me that way?” Then she threw her head down onto the counter and sobbed. After a moment she raised her head and said, “And my grandmother is dying!”

I don’t quite remember what happened after that — did she get her drink and saunter out? — but when I got to the office I was still a little unnerved by the whole thing. Fortunately for me, the first person I saw was the kindest and gentlest of my colleagues, a man who is a paragon of Christian charity. I told him what had happened, and what the woman had said.

He just smiled. “Ah, I can beat that,” he said. “My grandmother’s dead.


  1. My 17-year-old sister took her own life about a week before I started my second year of college. When I informed a teacher on the first day of class that I had an upcoming planned absence for a funeral, she sighed, and sarcastically said "Grandma?"

    Years later, I was on the bus on the way home from the hospital where I was visiting my partner, who had recently been given a prognosis of a few months for stage-four cancer (he was 28.) The phone rang, I answered, and updated my family on what was going on. The driver barked from the front for me to "hang that thing up," and I lost it.

    I'm thinking back to these times as I read the post, because I remember how alien I felt in the rest of the world that continued on oblivious to the pain crushing me on the inside. To a person experiencing intense grief, or the strange anticipatory grief of slowly losing someone, the reactions of others (even sane, sensible reactions) can be jolting.

    It's the most bizarre feeling– to find that while one's own daily experience has become so full of pain, life goes on around you just as it always has. Well-meaning people don't know– how could they– and yet there's still this sense of affront, and shock, "how dare these people carry on, acting like nothing has changed?"

  2. For that feeling, Anonymous, there will always be this.

    But wrapping up my first year of teaching high school, with the mortality rate of both grandmothers and printers staggeringly high, it seems that on the other side there's generally only the snide (or sometimes kind and wise) camaraderie of fellow teachers.

    Thanks for the link, Dr. Jacobs.

  3. Anon, the experience you describe is one key reason why it's so wrong for people to manufacture stories of death. It's impossible to avoid being desensitized when you hear the same stories over and over again and know that the overwhelming majority of them are false.

  4. Strange synchronicity. Today a woman got in touch asking if I could take her and son for a sailboat ride tomorrow. It's the 3rd anniversary of his death and they're finally ready to honor his wish to have his ashes scattered at sea.

    I've also been thinking about desensitization, lack of sensitization, and atypical sensitization.

  5. What joy to know that even Wheaton g'mas are dying…here I was sure there was a run on them in Detroit. Hard to have a policy, it is…

  6. I suppose you could ask which of their parents lost a mother so you can address your sympathy card correctly. And actually send a sympathy card.

  7. I'll add my story.

    My sister was killed in a car wreck during my first quarter in college. I was on an elevator to my first evening class after returning to school (I took a week off) with my Prof. when I was told I couldn't retake the exam I missed and would have to make it up on the others.

    It took me 15 minutes or so before I exploded in front of a class full of students as she handed out the next assignment. I promptly dropped out of college. I went back (to another college) the next year.

    FWIW, I think the sympathy card thing is genius.

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