How To Cope With a Serious Family Illness While in College


When a family member is dealing with a serious affliction, the stress can be hard to manage. When you’re dealing with final exams, essays, and a full class schedule on top of that, it can be doubly so. If a family member is afflicted with a serious illness in the middle of your college course, you may even doubt whether it’s possible to finish your academic studies.

Fortunately, there are helpful strategies you can use to secure the grades you need without neglecting your family.

Recognize the Struggle

The worst thing you can do for yourself, mentally and emotionally, is to deny what’s happening—yet, that’s often one of our first instincts when coping with grief. You may be tempted to downplay the seriousness of the illness to avoid some responsibilities or refuse to confront your feelings, or you may deny that taking care of your seriously ill family member is interfering with your studies.

Instead of running away from these realizations, you need to confront them head-on; be honest with yourself, and work to understand how this illness is affecting your life, both internally and externally.

Find a Support Group

If your family member is suffering from a chronic illness, you should both find a support group for ongoing therapy. If your loved one is receiving treatment from a hospital or specialist, the experts there will likely be able to make a recommendation for a support group to join. You’ll also likely find a support group at your own university. Make it a point to attend regularly, and be open about your feelings there; it’s a safe space, and you need to be around people you like and trust.

Be Upfront With Your Professors and Classmates

Professors frequently begin classes with an explanation of their zero-tolerance policy for lame excuses on missing assignments; accordingly, you might be scared to bring up the fact that a loved one’s illness is interfering with your ability to study or complete work.

Professors, for the most part, aren’t there to make your life more difficult; they just don’t want to be lied to, disrespected, or taken advantage of. The right way to approach professors is proactively and openly; explain your situation as soon as you know about it, detail how it’s going to affect your abilities, and ask what alternative work you can do (or what alternative schedule you can adopt) to complete the course satisfactorily. Most professors will be more than willing to help you out.

Reduce Your Class Load

Taking classes full-time is a difficult task for anyone. As soon as a new responsibility or load of stress enters your life, you may want to consider reducing that class load. Dropping even one class could be enough to give you the extra time to manage your hectic schedule—and get better grades in all your other classes. If it’s too late for this semester, consider making the move for next semester.

Attend Group Study Sessions

Studying in groups is inherently better than studying alone for a few different reasons; you’ll be held more accountable, you’ll remember things easier, and most importantly, you’ll get to socially interact with other people. As you cope with your family member’s illness, it’s important that you avoid isolating yourself; studying in a group can get you out of the house and help you achieve higher grades at the same time, so it’s an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

Make Time for Yourself

Between all your on-campus responsibilities and the time and effort you’ll spend taking care of your family, it’s easy to neglect your own health. You may start eating less frequently, losing sleep, and skipping basic forms of self-care like personal hygiene. However, it’s extremely important that you keep yourself in healthy condition; otherwise, you’re liable to suffer far more serious stress and symptoms. Make time to get plenty of sleep at night, eat full, healthy meals, exercise, and do some things that make you happy.

Managing a college workload when a family member is ill can be stressful and exhausting, but with the right approach, it is possible. If you feel you’ve been pushed to the brink, you can put your college education on hold and resume when things have settled down, but it’s better to keep your momentum—even if it means reducing your workload temporarily.

Melissa Burns graduated from the faculty of Journalism of Iowa State University. Nowadays she is an entrepreneur and independent journalist. Follow her @melissaaburns or contact at


One comment on “How To Cope With a Serious Family Illness While in College”

  1. I’ve been there before and trust me its very difficult… My dad had a bypass when I was in college and I couldn’t even attend the classes…

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