‘The grief is huge and disruptive,’ says college counselor
For many young adults, college provides the first step into independence, a safe testing space for how to manage time, balance priorities, and find a purpose in life. It’s a chance to step out of the protective nest of home.
But what happens when the nest is no longer there?
“Students suffer when a marriage dissolves,” said SCCC Dean of Student Success Annette Hackbarth-Onson. “They struggle to understand, and this impacts their health, their grades, their ability to focus.” Financial pressures may also increase as the household separates.
During her 30 years in higher ed, Hackbarth-Onson has seen many such students.
According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, the divorce rate for people over 50 doubled between 1990 and 2010, reaching 25 percent of all divorces by age group. For years, the “gray divorce” has been a focus of research, but it becomes more than numbers on a page when you are the child of the couple.
In the SCCC TRiO office for student success, director Joel Figgs often navigates the fallout.
“TRiO already focuses on providing services to students who come to college with a barrier to overcome, and divorce only amplifies the impact,” he said. “At Seward, where I’ve been in this role for a little more than a year, I see the need for some kind of support.”
Figgs, along with TRiO advisor Erika Espinoza and SCCC counselor Stephanie Heger, will host the first of what the team hopes will become a regular series of support group meetings at 4 p.m. Wednesday (Oct. 30), in room A 163 of the Hobble Academic Building.
“There’s not an agenda for this, except to provide a place for students to find community and, hopefully, some comfort in what is doubtless a difficult time,” he said.
“We’re not trying to cross boundaries into counseling, but we want to show them they are not alone,” she said. Espinoza described the group as a “go-to place,” a safe starting point to connect students with helpful resources. “What we do in the group will really come out of what the students say they want.”
As recorded by clinical psychologist and researcher Barbara Cain, older children experience “a profound sense of loss” when their parents divorce. “They felt bereft of the family of childhood, the one in the photo album, the one whose members shared the same history, the same humor, the same address,” Cain wrote in a 1990 article in the New York Times.
Higher-ed professionals have a front-row seat to the trend, said Heger.
“This is a time in life when you’re trying to establish your own identity and who you are, in contrast to your family of origin, and to have that fall apart is incredibly disruptive,” she said. “The grief is huge. Sometimes it results in role reversal, where young adults are kind of trying to comfort a parent when they are also in the midst of midterms or finals.”
SCCC instructors teaching the First Year Seminar Classes required of all incoming freshman have noticed an uptick in students who openly admit they are struggling with a family rift.
“They are hurting,” Figgs said. “We know that we’ve got to do something to help them. Students might blame themselves, or feel ashamed about their situation. We need to be there.”
For information about the Divorce Support Group, contact Figgs at 620-417-1605.