I tried to write a detailed post this morning about how to cope with trouble back home while you are away at school, but I struggled to really put into words what it feels like, how much it hurts, and how to cope with it.

Two years ago this week, I was preparing for finals as my dad prepared to go into a surgery that we hoped would remove all traces of cancer from his body. Though I took all my finals and my dad made it safely through surgery, the weeks leading up to those days—and the months of hospitalizations, chemotherapy, and pain that my dad experienced afterward—were some of the hardest of my life.

Though it’s hard to give good general advice when everyone copes differently, there are a few things you should know if you find yourself in this situation:

  • Tests and Tragedy: Coping with College when Trouble Hits at HomeKnow Your Limits. You need to decide how much you will struggle in school based on whatever is going on with your family or friend. Decide if you think you can make it through the quarter/semester, or if this is such an extreme situation that you need to drop a class or take a break from school. Talk to a parent or adult that you trust to help you make this decision.
  • Tell Your Professors and/or Employer. Don’t feel like it is a cop-out to explain your personal situation to your professors and/or employer. Your professor may be able to offer you additional help, or refer you to someone who can tutor you if you find yourself struggling to keep up in class. Your employer needs to understand your situation because he/she may notice a change in your mood, and because you may need time off to visit home.
  • Search Out Support. The best support I got was from a friend who had been through a similar situation—he was able to help me understand that my feelings were normal, and was empathetic. You should also find out what your school has to offer. UCSD’s Student Health Services offered free sessions with a psychologist to all students, and also had student support groups for all different kinds of issues.
  • Reach Out to Others. One thing that is almost guaranteed to lift your spirits is to focus on helping other people instead of on your own worries. I made a lot of phone calls to my mom to cheer her up, and they cheered me up, too. Don’t feel that you have to help just one person or that you have to do a lot of big things—small, random acts of kindness to others will help you get outside your own pain, and even a small break from worrying is worth the effort.
  • Rest and Nourish. The health of your body affects your emotional state—you are much more likely to feel sad or fearful if you are tired. Worry, fear, and depression all take a lot out of you, so take good care of your body. Pay attention to what you eat, and try to keep eating healthily and on a regular basis. Also, understand that you might need more rest during stressful times—you might need to go to bed earlier or take a nap.
  • Remember, everyone copes in different ways. My younger brother couldn’t stand to go visit my dad in the hospital—it was just too painful for him. I was on the opposite side of the spectrum, and only felt good when I was sitting by Dad’s bed in the hospital.

If you have been through something like this, I encourage you to leave thoughts, ideas, and experiences in comments for your fellow readers—it really helps to know you’re not alone.