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Coping with the Illness of a Loved One

Students walking across campus on a bright morning; The steeple of the chapel against a blue and pink sky

There are no easy answers when a family member or close friend has a serious illness and you are in college. Is it better to be home, or at school? What if things get worse? How do you make long-term plans? How can you best look out for your loved one and for yourself? It can make almost everything more difficult.

How is it Especially Difficult?

You may be feeling torn between home and school, having difficulty concentrating, or falling behind in your classes.  Talking about your family member’s illness may be hard, especially if they don’t know your loved one. You may be full of questions: whether you should let your professors know, whether you should go home for a visit or work on your paper, whether you should apply to study abroad, drop a class, or sign up for that OAE trip instead of going home again.

What are Some of the Feelings People Have?

It is natural under these circumstances to feel more stressed.  The stress can affect your sleep and your appetite. It can make you feel tired all the time, anxious, or just numb. You may also experience these other feelings:

  • Guilt—Because you’re “enjoying college” while your loved one is suffering. Or because you’re not calling often enough, or you’re calling too often. Maybe because you’re spending money while your dad is sick in bed. Or because you’re away while your sister must care for your mom.
  • Fear—What if grandpa needs another operation? Or mom’s cancer recurs? What if things get worse just before finals? What if they die?
  • Annoyance—That this is happening, that your loved one is suffering and maybe could die, and that it’s making it hard for you to enjoy your time in college—which maybe you feel you “shouldn’t even be thinking,” but this awful situation can force these feelings on you.
  • Homesickness—Some students find that they are missing home more, while some find they seem to hardly ever think of their loved one. Some find they are longing always to visit home, while some dread the idea. 
  • Jealousy—Because other people here seem to be having so much fun, with so little to worry about. 
  • Loneliness—Because you might be far from home, and it seems harder to talk with newer friends. It might also feel harder to talk with your ailing loved one. And you wonder, is there anyone else here facing this kind of situation? Who could really understand some of what you’re going through?

The bottom line is that most of the feelings you’re having are normal and all of them are okay.

You're not Alone: How to Get Support


Loyola has many ways to help you, and the Counseling Center is the ideal place to find out about all of them. We can connect you with the right people for arranging things like special accommodations, leaves of absence, and tutoring, to minimize the impact of this situation on your academic work. 


Individual counseling - The Counseling Center can, if you would like, connect you with an individual counselor with whom you can meet, once, a few times, or regularly, to discuss your situation and seek further ways to improve it as much as is possible. The Counseling Center also offers a wide variety of groups that may be applicable to your current experience.


Campus Ministry, on the bottom floor of Cohn Hall (410-617- 2222), has spiritual advisors who are happy to meet with you to discuss spiritual dimensions and the role of your faith in your situation.

What are Other Ways to Cope?

Each of us has an individual style of coping with painful times. The list below may help you generate ideas about how to manage your feelings. You may want to experiment with these ideas or create a list of your own. Only you know what coping skills will fit best with your personality and lifestyle.

One way to examine your own style of coping is to recall the ways you've dealt with painful times in the past. It's important to note that some ways of coping with grief are helpful, like talking to others, writing in a journal, and so forth. Others may be hurtful or destructive, like substance abuse or isolation. It is important to develop healthy coping skills for facing life’s hardships. 

  • Talk to family or friends;
  • Read poetry or books;
  • Engage in social activities;
  • Write in a journal, especially about what’s difficult;
  • Eat good foods;
  • Exercise;
  • Take time to relax;
  • Listen to music;
  • Let yourself feel whatever you are feeling and;
  • Be patient with yourself

How can you Support a Friend in this Situation?

  • Say something; don’t just ignore their situation;
  • Ask how they’re doing;
  • Ask about their loved one;
  • Be a good listener;
  • Ask about their feelings;
  • Just sit with them;
  • Share your feelings;
  • Let them feel sad and scared—don’t try to “just be positive;”
  • Remember to check back; don’t just ask once and then forget it;
  • Be available when you can and;
  • Consider recommending other supports, like the Counseling Center

People who are facing a possible loss often feel isolated or lonely in their grief and fear. Well-meaning friends may avoid discussing the subject due to their own discomfort or their fear of "making the person feel bad." They may feel they “don’t know what to say." Showing concern about a friend shows that you care. It's better to feel nervous and awkward sitting with your friend than not to sit there at all.

Consider Togetherall, a 24/7 confidential peer to peer mental wellness resource, free to all enrolled Loyola students. Register here today. The Counseling Center located in Humanities 150 is open M-F from 8:30am until 5pm (EST) and closed when the university is closed.  If you would like to make an appointment with a counselor, schedule an appointment online, stop by our office, or call 410-617-2273.

Contact Us

Humanities, Room 150
One flight up the turret entrance
Phone: 410-617-CARE (2273)

Call to schedule an appointment
Monday - Friday, 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.


REACT Online

REACT is an online video that explains how to help yourself or someone you care about cope in healthy ways after a distressing life event (such as a trauma, assault, or loss).