Surviving college after the loss of a parent
David Fajgenbaum created Students of AMF to support grieving college students. He is pictured here with his mom, Anne Marie Fajgenbaum, who died when David was a college sophomore.
September 3rd, 2012
04:27 AM ET

Surviving college after the loss of a parent

By Katherine Dorsett Bennett, CNN

(CNN) - David Fajgenbaum started his freshman year of college as a pre-med student at Georgetown University with much anxiety - worrying about his mother's failing health. His mom, Anne Marie Fajgenbaum, had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor just two weeks before he started classes.

"We placed my mom in Hospice about two months before she passed away, just as I was beginning my sophomore year, so I drove home every weekend to Raleigh, North Carolina, for those two months to see her," he said.

David had a couple of close friends he could confide in about his mother's situation, but he felt they couldn't relate to or understand the pain he was going through. "It's not an easy thing to bring up at a party or that anyone wants to talk about in the cafeteria," he said.

After a tough battle, David's mother passed away on October 26, 2004. His family held her memorial service a few days after her death and then David immediately returned back to school.

"Since I was pre-med, I decided to focus my efforts on fighting back against cancer, and I was able to connect my studies with honoring my mom, so I actually was able to do very well academically," he noted.

While David excelled in his studies, he struggled personally through her illness and passing. He knew he could speak with counselors at Georgetown, but he felt what he really needed was the opportunity to speak with other students going through the same experience that he was.

Her death prompted him to form an organization called Students of AMF –  a dual acronym for "Ailing Mothers and Fathers" that later changed to “Actively Moving Forward” - and his mother's name, Anne Marie Fajgenbaum.

David said his peer-led support group quickly grew to about 15 to 20 students who would consistently attend meetings at Georgetown. Within about six months, students from other campuses started learning about David's group and wanted to form similar groups, he said. In 2006, his group created the National Students of AMF, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting grieving college students. Today, the organization has 44 official campus chapters across the U.S. and is working with students from more than 30 colleges to develop new chapters. More than 2,000 students have been helped with support from this group.

"AMF has been very therapeutic for me to be able to channel my grief and energy towards something that honors my mother's life," he said.

David said he often hears testimonials from students about how AMF has helped support them and give them a way to honor their loved ones.

Kelly Hudson, a junior at Central Michigan University, is among those students.

"I honestly don't know where I would be without this organization," she said. "I used to think that I would be defined by my grief, but now I know that it is me who gets to decide how I will define my grief." Kelly lost her mom earlier this year to an inoperable brain tumor.

Several factors unique to the college age and environment can make grief during college particularly difficult to encounter with resilience. These factors include geographic distance from home and usual support systems, academic pressures, inadequate peer support and empathy, and limited resources for grief support on many college campuses, said David. Therefore, grieving students can be at greater risk than their peers of a host of physical, academic, social, developmental and emotional issues.

David notes that before his organization was formed, psychotherapy at university counseling centers was primarily the only resource in place for grieving college students.

"These programs were underutilized, focused primarily on the psychological impact of grief and further isolated death and the feelings associated with it," he said. By creating a more inclusive support network on campuses, David said AMF can reach the multitude of students in need of peer support and help identify and immediately direct students struggling with depression and other mental illness to specific counseling services.

"Our focus on encouraging students to participate in community service projects in memory of deceased loved ones has been pioneering within the bereavement community, too," he said. Research indicates that college students, particularly males, receive significant therapeutic benefit from these service activities, he noted.

David is now a fourth year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, and he plans to enter health policy after graduation. He has been accepted to The Wharton School, where he's going for an MBA in health care management.

"I think my mother would have loved AMF, as she was the ultimate supporter," he said. "AMF is really just a continuation of her beautiful life."

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soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Horrified.

    My future husband Mark went through this very same struggle and attempted to continue college while also being the only one looking after his terminally ill mother. Needless to say his grades suffered and did so for the entire duration of the two emotional soul crushing years he watched his Adopted mother perish. She died in front of him at the age of 22 and has never fully recovered, which is an undeniable reality of all those who undergo the loss of a parent so young. Having said that there is a light at the end of this tunnel. Mark and I plan to be married once we are finished with school. One thing that hinders this dream is Mark's denial from Financial aid. How can a young man on the deans list not be applicable? The cause was that the college in question refused to accept his mother's death as a sufficient reason to strike his grades from the record.
    IF NOT THE LOSS OF A PARENT THEN I ASK YOU ...WHAT IS?

    September 13, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  2. Emmy

    This would be great for high school students also. I lost my mom in high school. It was hard to talk about to begin with but after a couple of reactions of my peers (stunned silence, awkwardness) I decided it was not worth it to talk about at all. I had an absent dad so I had to figure out how to take care of myself. (There was no way in hell I was going into foster care.) I have to say I did a damn good job of pulling myself up by my boot straps, considering, but it sure would have been easier with genuine support, not just pity. I feel that most of the adults in my life saw me as a burden or sad story rather than a human.

    September 8, 2012 at 3:23 am |
  3. Vix

    Looks like a wonderful initiative. My dad passed away recently when I was on the first month of my probation in a new job, and although my work has been very good and understanding, I still struggle coping with the loss. It would have been wonderful, if such organisations existed in placed of employment too, as sometimes you just want to share your grief with someone who's been through the same.

    September 5, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  4. sharon c

    This initiative by David is truly commendable. I lost my Dad during the final term of my full time mba program. It was really hard dealing with the grief and trying to keep up my grades at the same time. My friends were very supportive but I could sense their sympathy had its limits. I wish my university had such a support system. I would have signed up in a heartbeat...

    September 4, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  5. Don

    My son’s mom died the week before finals, at Pots Dam University. The School was so unsupportive; they could have at least taken his grades to that point and excused him from the finals. Instead it was a disaster. Its been 4 years and he is lost in the system and strugling.

    September 4, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  6. Student loans are making slaves out of people.

    I left school for five years after my dad died. Partly from PTSD (trauma). And partly because my mom wanged out and messed me up. Not fun.

    September 4, 2012 at 1:18 am |
  7. Belinda davis

    As a college professor, I applaud this young man's efforts. All too often, students are unaware of the support services colleges offer. They need the support of their peers and their university.

    September 3, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • rh

      I spend many hours trying to help students having difficulty. It is not our place to ask what the problem is, but some offer that they are taking care of a sick loved one or work full-time because their parents are unable to.

      September 4, 2012 at 12:16 am |
  8. sescott

    David....there is no doubt how very proud your mother must be of you. What an amazing way to honor her. I only wish my sister had access to this support when she returned to college just three weeks after our mother's death. Thank you for making a difference for all of the young adults that will go through this painful process.

    September 3, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  9. Jessica

    This is so inspiring. Thanks for sharing this story. I hope the folks at Wharton know how lucky they are to have David.

    September 3, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • rh

      Penn is actually a very very good campus in terms of medical specialties – not only the obvious nuts and bolts part of it, but the compassionate part that must go along with the medical professions. In addition to outstanding medical, dental, and veterinary schools, their nursing program is top-notch, and there are two world-class hospitals on campus (HUP and CHOP – the latter is probably the best children's hospital in the world).

      A friend of mine has a rare illness, but was able to get a nursing degree. She has teamed with the Penn Medical School to work on patient advocacy – how to be a caring doctor, how to understand what a patient needs to hear and how. The idea of teaching bedside manner, to worry about the WHOLE person even if your specialty is very narrow, is what she is focusing on now that her illness prevents her from working.

      September 4, 2012 at 12:24 am |
  10. Jill

    It was my third semester of college in 1985 and my mother was diagnosed with cancer of the uterus. At the time my brother’s and I did not know it was terminal. She made an agreement with her doctors not to tell us … as my older brother was in college too. My mother knew ... we would drop everything and come home to be with her. As I look back I know the strength it took her to cope with her illness but wanting to make sure, as every parent does, to give their children the best chance in life … this was a decision she made for our future. She gave the ultimate sacrifice to us but at the expense of her. Three months before she died we found out her cancer was terminal. She died in August of 1986. It was my junior year of college and my brother’s senior year of college. It was crushing and an organization like this would have been so beneficial because what David said is true. Pier support of those going through it would have been a huge coping mechanism of not feel lost and alone. The feeling of knowing if you call home, nobody will pick up the phone is dautingly depressing. I sat out a semester because my head could not focus but my mother was about education and always said, “Education will take you everywhere, promise me you will finish your education.” I went back in honor of her and she was correct it has given me the ability to stand on my own two feet. As a mother now I know I can say David, “Your mother would be proud of you.” When one door shuts another opens and her life has greater meaning now and will help so many who will walk in your footsteps.

    September 3, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  11. AP

    I wish we had something like this when I was in college. My mom passed away in 04, two months before my senior year in high school started. I graduated college in 09 and never took advantage of therapy options because they were on a different campus, and nobody I talked to could ever relate. I buried my emotions, got through school and I'm still grieving 8.5 years later.

    September 3, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  12. maureen

    godd job by u david God bless n ur mom is very proud of u

    September 3, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  13. Muhammad

    I know a student that went through Med School after losing a sibling (who were best friends as well). Its really tough. God help them.

    September 3, 2012 at 11:14 am |