COLLEGE
10/28/2014 07:32 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2014

There Is No Instruction Manual For Handling Death On Campus

As University of Virginia students were preparing to celebrate homecoming, UVa President Teresa Sullivan sent out a solemn message this past Friday: Remains found one week earlier had been confirmed to be those of missing sophomore Hannah Graham.

During what is usually a joyous weekend, students gathered Sunday on the Charlottesville campus for the unveiling of a memorial -- a chair constructed of skis to pay tribute to Graham's love of the winter sport. Some students left notes for Graham on a nearby chalkboard.

For five weeks, UVa had struggled as a community to deal with Graham's disappearance. Students were fearful and confused about what had happened and hopeful for the best outcome, experiencing what sophomore Natalie Anderson described as an "emotional roller-coaster."

"I live with three other girls," Anderson said. "We all went out and bought pepper spray the week after Hannah disappeared because we didn't know what was going on. It really sobered you to the fact that we don't live in a bubble."

No college can entirely prevent student deaths or other tragedies, and no campus is immune to them. Death doesn't discriminate between residential and commuter colleges, public and private, or elite and non-competitive. But even with every campus vulnerable, there is no widely accepted playbook on how a campus community is to respond or established set of steps to take when a school learns a student has died.

Confirmation of Graham's death on Friday means that at least 50 college students have died in the U.S. so far this fall semester, according to a Huffington Post analysis of media reports. Within 24 hours of the news about Graham, students also heard about deaths at Cornell University, St. Bonaventure University and Sheldon State Community College.

Faced with a death, most schools do much as UVa did: send out a campuswide email from an administrator informing the community of the death, sharing what information can be shared and detailing what services are or will be available for students.

At UVa, Sullivan routinely kept students updated with messages about news and resources available during the hunt for Graham, while students organized vigils and support services. Some students, with a nod to a college nickname, sought to rally the community around a Hoos Got Your Back campaign encouraging people to look out for one another. A Facebook group tracking the latest developments in the search had 44,000 members.

Graham's disappearance was on everyone's mind, "regardless of whether they met Hannah or not," said UVa junior Faith Lyons.

That kind of awareness is why a university's reaction to a missing or deceased student can be so critical.

The steps a school takes depends on the circumstances of each case, said Allen Hamrick O'Barr, director of counseling and psychological services at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. One key factor is when or if a full explanation of what happened is possible.

UNC had its own tragedy in 2012 with the death of Faith Hedgepeth, which police are investigating as a homicide. The case has not been solved. That lack of closure was something with which the campus particularly struggled in the 2012-13 academic year, O'Barr said.

"There was no wrapping up," he recalled. "That was a really difficult thing for a lot of people. I think there were tons of people who were just generally feeling unsafe."

O'Barr said that UNC officials' approach was to contact everyone in the deceased student's immediate social network -- such as fellow members of a sports team or sorority -- and then let the campus more generally know of counseling options. They don't force anyone to come in and talk, but they were ready for those who needed a compassionate ear. Within North Carolina at least, the universities have arrangements to send each other extra counselors in times of crisis. It's a moment when UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke willingly set aside their longstanding rivalry, O'Barr said.

He didn't suggest that every school must follow UNC's model. "Different universities have different cultures," O'Barr said. "There's probably no right way to do things, but just different ways."

Still, a university's acknowledging the loss is a crucial first step to help students feel comfortable talking about grief.

"Grief is not something our society wants to talk about. In college it's even less of something people want to talk about. It's difficult to say, 'I'm still really sad that someone down the hall died a year ago,'" observed David Fajgenbaum, a student at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and co-founder of the campus support group National Students of AMF Support Network.

UPenn administrators were criticized earlier this year when they failed to promptly inform the campus at large about four student suicides during the last academic year.

Virtually every college that does post information about how to handle a student death discusses acknowledging the loss and giving people space to grieve and vent.

Experts say a family's wishes about privacy should always be taken into account, but that can be difficult when college students have a different idea about what they should be told and when they should be told it.

"There's a student expectation where they are used to the Facebook status updates right away, in the minute, telling me something," said Greg Eells, director of Counseling & Psychological Services at Cornell University. "Which is just not possible with a student death."

At Cornell, Eells noted, students have taken the lead in organizing their own public displays following a death. In 2012, for example, Krista Depew passed away from meningitis just days after the spring semester ended. Students packed a memorial service at the start of the fall semester, and since then her sorority has thrown an annual softball tournament to raise money for a scholarship named in Depew's honor.

But nothing can really prepare college students for what may be the first death of a young person they have ever faced.

"Sometimes we as students lose sight of the fact that we aren't in a little safe haven," Anderson said of her Virginia campus. "It's a sobering thought."

Alexandra Svokos contributed reporting.

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