Advice to an industry, from the loss side of study abroad’s ledger

When working with newly bereaved families, please understand the following:

(1) Someone’s child left home on hope and a promise and instead died or was injured far from home.

  • Understand this to your core and express your sympathy
  • Be always mindful that, simply by offering your program, you are part of a devastating chain of events
  • Many of the ways that student death or injury could have been prevented will be obvious with hindsight
  • For families and survivors, the horror of this event will be physically and psychologically experienced, over and over again without warning, for days, months, and years—this is one of the hallmarks of trauma
  • The lives of the immediate family, extended family, and even entire communities will be forever altered
  • For the survivors, the extreme level of grief and trauma results in emotional, physical and financial damage that will never end
  • Understanding these basic facts about grief is not about admitting culpability—that is an entirely separate question—understanding these basic facts is about retaining your own capacity for compassion
  • In the face of someone else’s suffering, your first priority must be to remain faithful to your own humanity, which should cause you to prioritize those who are newly bereaved
  • When expressing your deepest sympathy to the newly bereaved, you must know that this child could have been anyone’s child, even your own


(2) “We are doing everything in our power to gather the truth of what happened to your child, and we will share this information with you as soon as it is available. ”

  • Say this and mean it
  • Death during study abroad brings together particular details—the student, far from home, may have suffered a violent death, with no possibility of an intact body—under these circumstances, the grief of survivors is “complicated”
  • Psychologist Dr. Pauline Boss has described this type of complicated grief as “ambiguous loss”
  • The absence of truth about what happened to a family’s child will only amplify the complicated nature of grief
  • Do not run a study abroad program that claims integrity if you cannot be truthful and transparent about every detail that led to student death


(3) Study abroad programs often proclaim, “Student safety is our first priority.” Bereaved families respond, “Really?!”

  • Given this industry’s fondness for growth, and yet its resistance to transparency, it’s difficult for those of us on the loss side of study abroad’s ledger to believe that student safety is priority #1
  • Bereaved families believe that student safety is a priority for the study abroad industry—just not #1
  • What value should we believe this industry places on student safety, when it willingly counts and reports students as they go, but will not count and report students if they do not return
  • The study abroad industry must expect that bereaved families will suddenly see through industry claims of safety to recognize something else: on the front end, marketing, and on the dark end, lawyers, insurers, and boards
  • The study abroad industry must understand that for a student’s family, on the front end, we believed we were giving our child a precious gift, the world—on the dark end, there’s a corpse in a box, ashes in a can, or no body at all
  • For bereaved families, conclusions about what to do with this sudden reality will arrive quickly—for others, more slowly


(4) Post-death and injury protocols must include superior communication, program changes, and continued help for survivors.

  • It is likely that an entire group of students has been placed at risk
  • It is also likely that an entire group of students has been traumatized
  • If the program is meant to continue, expect to make radical programming changes for surviving students
  • Death has become your subject—to ignore this fact strips survivors of their reality
  • To ignore death also strips program professionals of their humanity
  • Facilitate communication between the bereaved family and surviving students and instructors
  • Facilitate travel for bereaved parents and pay for it
  • Do not pressure bereaved families to sign legal agreements in exchange for information or travel
  • Expect to follow up with the dead or injured student’s family and peers indefinitely


(5) When issuing public statements about a study abroad student’s death…

  • Someone’s son/daughter/grandchild/cousin/friend has just died and this person’s life and death are now your subjects
  • Because many newly bereaved families initially believed their child to be study abroad’s first death, and because we gradually learn of other families like ours, we come to understand that students and families have never had the benefit of truly informed consent
  • We also gradually comprehend that your industry has profited from this lack of transparency
  • So, in this context, words matter—
    • We’ve raised our sons and daughters to the point where they are no longer children, nor are they adults—they exist in transition between childhood and adulthood, a passage marked by intense schooling, high expectations, and psychological pressure
    • Our newly dead and injured sons and daughters, as students, should continue to be called “students”—and your study abroad program should continue to be called “study abroad”
      • When issuing public statements, do not shift your language from “student” and “study abroad” to “traveling man” or “traveling woman”
      • Suddenly referring to your student as a “man” or a “woman” sounds calculated
      • Suddenly referring to your student as a “traveler” sounds calculated
      • Suddenly referring to your student as “an American traveler who died” sounds calculated
    • Do not use a compound sentence joined by the word “but”
      • For example, never say “this is obviously a tragic occurrence, but one that is rare during study abroad”
    • We hear this type of language and recognize it as abrupt, awkward, convenient, manipulative, disingenuous and designed to gain an early spin on the narrative
  • Do not shift your public statements to quasi-related material
    • For example, do not use concurrent media interest to instruct readers about how to shop for “good” programs—this information is useful, but not now
    • Do not list ways to minimize risk, such as not drinking alcohol while abroad—again, useful, but not now
    • Do not make weird and unproven analogies, such as “students are more likely to die on their way to the airport than on study abroad”
    • Setting aside the methodological deficiencies of the 2016 Forum report, do not cite this report and claim “study abroad is safer than studying on campus”
    • Do not make statements about how many students your program has educated—as if to imply that the tragedy of this student’s death can be lessened by large enough enrollments
  • We the bereaved understand that the aforementioned categories of public statement are not for the benefit of newly bereaved families
    • Such statements reveal the spokesperson’s wish to shift the subject from a specific student’s death or injury to a more general pro-growth message
    • Ask yourself, “Who are these statements being made for?”
    • The aftermath of student death is never the time to issue public reassurances to your industry
    • Speak to boards, donors, insurers, prospective students and their families elsewhere


(6) The study abroad industry must understand that bereaved families are not the enemy. We remember how much our sons and daughters believed in the transformational potential of student travel. We remember how we believed, too.

  • Our child’s death necessarily means we view your industry in a way that we never imagined
  • Our changed perception will likely spill over into how we view you—and this may be uncomfortable for you
  • In your efforts to deal with us, you may feel misunderstood—this impression may or may not be true
  • In your efforts to deal with us, you may feel that you, too, are a victim—you are not
  • We understand that you are concerned about liability, and this may cause you to feel fear
  • Resist pressure to become the mouthpiece for your institutional employer, whose worry about liability may be significantly greater than your own
  • You have a personal choice to make: defensiveness or compassion
  •  A student’s death should change you—this change will be how you know you’ve retained your humanity
  • Please choose your humanity