Today I saw that one of my students in the class was looking very sad. He sat down at the end of class and he looked like he was in a bad mood. After all the students left the classroom I called him over. He told me that his mother has cancer.

I told him be strong and try to not think about it too much. But honestly, this was a big lie. How can I try to get him to not think too much of it?

What should I have said to him?

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    How can I try to get him to not think too much of it? — Why would you want to?
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 9:18
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    @JeffE ever heard of empathy? Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 10:34
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    @WolfgangKuehne: not thinking about it is avoidance, it's not healthy. Of course, by definition nobody should do anything "too much", so in that sense the advice is true but useless. He's attending class, so it's not preventing him from functioning, and he's looking sad, probably because he's sad. I don't see why empathy would dictate this should be avoided. And of course idiomatically "don't do X too much" is liable to be taken to mean "do X as little as possible", which isn't necessarily the advice an instructor should give. Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 11:42
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    @WolfgangKuehne I'm afraid the sentiment "Don't think about it too much", coming from the instructor of a course the student is taking, comes across as the opposite of empathy. Of course the student is going to be preoccupied with worry. What he shouldn't be thinking about much is not his mother's illness, but your class.
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 14:20
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    If you're an instructor and not a therapist then it's arguably unwise, unhealthy, and unkind (and maybe unethical) to try and mandate some particular emotional response in the student. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 10:09

7 Answers 7


As an instructor, the best you can do is to offer your condolences and tell him to just ask you if he needs anything. For example, you could offer an extension on assignments. If he needs some time off from lectures, maybe a classmate who takes good lecture notes will agree to make a photocopy, or you could get the lectures to be recorded for him.

Your university might also have a policy that allows students to withdraw from the course and receive a refund of fees without penalty to grades: it would be worth finding this out and advising your student if this is possible. Depending on the severity of the illness and how much it is affecting your student, he might wish to take fewer (or zero) courses for a while.

If the course is nearly finished, perhaps an aegrotat (compassionate consideration) will be applicable to the final exam. But neither an illness in the family, nor a bereavement or any personal physical or mental health issue can excuse a student from having to learn the material and complete assessments in order to pass a course. He will still have to demonstrate mastery of most of the material.

Just be compassionate, and as flexible as you feasibly can. Nobody could ask for more.

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    I was in the process of composing a similar answer. The only thing I have to add is that you might tell him you are sure his mother would want him to do well. Do check on compassionate withdrawal policies, but my own experience is that work will be better for the student unless he has obligations to provide care for his mother.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 15:51
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    @BobBrown I agree that (unless it's a highly aggressive or late-stage cancer) the student probably shouldn't withdraw from all study. However, the instructor should suggest he talks to friends, family, and perhaps a counsellor for advice about that. Although well-meaning, saying "I'm sure your mother would want you to do well" subtly suggests he should keep concentrating on his study. It's not the instructor's place to advise that.
    – Moriarty
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 16:10
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    I think you are correct. So, the OP should investigate what counseling services the university might provide and have that information at hand. (For some reason the comment system isn't letting me prefix with @Moriarty.)
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 16:14
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    ... and if the instructor does address the student along those lines, phrases like "I'm sure your mother wants you to do well" are more appropriate than "would want you to".
    – E.P.
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 17:48
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    If your university has some form of counseling service for students, you might want to kindly point it out to the student. In my experience, many don't know about these service and if they do, don't really consider going there (who needs help of shrinks, right?). They can not only offer some free listening and adivce on how to deal with such circumstance, but they also have a good overview about all the things that can be done w.r.t. regulations to assist students in trouble.
    – Raphael
    Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 14:57

I imagine that most universities will have policy on this, and professionals who are trained to help. Apart from "find out the policy", IMHO unless you know the student well personally and are confident in your ability to deal with things like this (which the fact that you are asking this question suggests you are not) then all you should do is express sympathy and,

  • ask whether they've told anybody else at the uni. If not, with their permission, consider informing whoever has overall responsibility for their academic progress (eg head of dept, director of studies, etc)
  • make sure that the student is aware of whatever counseling services your institution offers
  • research for your own info what arrangements can be made for extensions to deadlines, or consideration of circumstances when exams are marked, both for the current situation and in the event that the parent dies.
  • make it clear to the student that allowances can be made (assuming this is the case), and that they should not be hesitant to speak to you if they feel that the situation is affecting their academic performance. No need to be specific for now - if the student is worried about this then just knowing that there are "options" may reduce the stress that they feel.

NB I have no particular qualification to comment here; once again, your uni probably has people whose job it is. If in doubt, consult them.

  • Exactly, leave it to the people who's job it is. They can provide better help than you can and they're trained and paid to do it. Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 10:27
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    Our school actually has an "early warning" system, which allows faculty and staff to report issues like this directly to the Dean of Students, who can triage and find help for students.
    – 1006a
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 4:05

You might encourage him to reach out to other resources at the university. I imagine your university has counseling or psychological services, a chaplain, and the student may have an assigned advisor who can help the student understand their options, and provide professionally trained support.

I think the comments about offering certain accommodations, as you think appropriate, is generous and reasonable.


I told him be strong and try to not think about it too much. But honestly, this was a big lie. How can I try to get him to not think too much of it?

This is not your place. I was due to graduate top of my class back in 2005 before a tutor started to hand out unprofessional advice that she was not qualified to give. I stopped working altogether and couldn't graduate. The gap on my CV and the loss of my dad, plus not being able to graduate caused a lot of pain. I hope you keep it professional. You might be opening a can of worms by overstepping the mark and putting someone's life in a much worse place.


It's unhelpful to tell you the teacher what you "should have said" because there is no perfect recipe for what to say, if exactly the same situation should arise again which it won't. Your priority should be to acknowledge that your student gave you an answer which you understood. I advise not advising anything before you, or someone with time for closer discussion with the student, has identified an actual need. I would ask whether his mother is receiving treatment or tests. From the answer you will learn whether the student has good or uncertain information, without which you cannot know whether this is just an imaginary case of worry, an actual terminal cancer case or likely something in between. There are other good answers here aimed at helping the student complete or delay completing the class. An empathic response (that I learned from a doctor) to be used if and only if the student talks about his Mother's medical progress is "Prepare for the worst and hope for the best".


My two cents: While a tragedy has befallen this student's family, the student must keep up his work.

Part of life is learning how to deal with blows like this, and to keep moving though them.

He will need to prioritize things in his life, in order to make sure that he fulfills his educational requirements, while also meeting familial expectations.

Working on his education can actually be a way to take his mind off of his family situation, if he chooses to look at it that way, or he can see it as a burden, but in the end that is his choice to make.

I think you did right to offer your condolences, but am not sure if there really is anything else you need to do as an instructor.

  • Would appreciate a brief explanation to accompany downvotes. Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 6:12

Its good that the student shared the problem,the best thing to do is to let the student know that the parent is not the only one with cancer and he shouldn't over think about it,its normal,it happens and most of all it can be controlled by a series of medical procedures,the student has to accept the fact because its not the end of everything after all,Just try to encourage him or her that the doctors are under control and the parent will be ok

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    This is really, really bad advice. Comes dangerously close to "it could be worse" and "get over it" territory
    – ff524
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 0:34
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    If you say "it could be worse", or "your mother's not the only one with cancer" to someone, the recipient of such uncaring phrases might be liable to punch you in the face.
    – Moriarty
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 7:24

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