Ask Sciencewomen: Are there really more dead grandmothers?

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgThis is not a belated April Fool's joke, though I'll admit to having sat on this since Wednesday so that my readers wouldn't think I was making this up. Here is the correspondence I found in my email account on Wednesday morning:


I've been reading your blog now for the past 18 months- and love it. Thanks so much for sharing!

I'd just like to say how much it really helped me, as I'm at the same stage as you. Last July, I went from being a post-doc to a faculty member. Your comments about applying for jobs, how the process worked were of great assistance... And it's great reading how you are settling in to the job, and how you're having similar issues with work to me. (Though life for me is less complicated, as there's no husband or kid in tow, yet!).

Anyway! Last week, I gave my first quiz to my students, all 198 of them. And the usual excuses for not attending came out- flu, panic attacks, sore throat, etc. Along with the dead grandmother. My father (who took a huge introductory science class at a large Canadian university) used to joke that he should put an advert in the newspapers before his tests, warning grandmothers of impending death, and undertakers of a surge in business. He was impressed with the numbers of grandmothers that some students appeared to have.

This got me wondering - why is it always dead grandmothers? Why do they die more frequently than grandfathers? Is it because the students think we will have more sympathy if their grandmother is dead? Or is it because the grandfathers are already dead before the students reach university (because men die younger)? (In which case, do high school teachers see a dead grandfather epidemic?)

So I wondered if you saw the same phenomenon with your classes- and if anyone out there had a good explanation for it, or had even got some statistics (e.g. asked students for death certificates for exemptions for exams, and could tally them up, comparing grandfathers with grandmothers) to see if the dead grandmother story was actually true. As the readers of your blog would be a great way to figure out if the dead grandmother epidemic was real, or just imaginary!

Many thanks!


Dear Kanga,

Glad you are enjoying the blog and that it was helpful to you in the job search process. It might be comforting to know that I've found the second year faculty experience to be much less insane than the first year experience.

Now, on to your question. Are there more dead grandmothers? I don't know, but off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of dead grandmothers and no dead grandfathers that have been offered up as excuses. In my large intro classes, I do ask for some sort of documentation before I allow make-up exams and quizzes, so all of my students dead grandmothers were really dead. (My poor students!)

What do our readers think? Is Kanga on to something in observing a higher prevalence of dead grandmums than grandpas? Do her hypotheses make sense to you? Can you offer up others? Does anyone actually know of any statistics on this?

In any case, give your surviving grandparents a call this weekend and ask them to tell you what sort of excuses they gave for missing school when they were kids. I'd like to hear those stories too.


More like this

"Grandpa ran off with a hootchie-kootchie dancer a couple of decades back. Last we heard, he was living on a dilapidated sailboat in Rio Dulce, somewhere in Central America. But he must have died since, because Grandma always said the opportunity to dance on his grave was the one thing keeping her hanging on."

By the time I was in high school, both of my grandfathers were long dead. Thus, it was only the death of grandmothers that was even a possibility.

In other words, maybe it's the fact that women live a fair bit longer than men, and that for the typical family, and the way generations are spaced, that there are more likely to be grandmothers around to die during high school or college years.

Ditto Acuah.

Ditto Acuah and Dave. Although one of my grandfathers deaths was due to the fact he was a vietnam vet....

My grandmother did die, with funeral a day prior to an exam of my sibling - however no exemption was asked for as this sibling didn't want to upset anyone more by requesting a copy of the death certificate. I also wonder how often this scenario happens?

Not necessarily. Take 25 years as the typical age of the mother when the first child is born (there is a large variation of course, but this is a ballpark number). The father is on average slightly older (because on average girls hit puberty earlier than boys), but typically only by a couple of years or so. So a typical college student will have grandparents in their 70s. Given the longer life expectancy of women, it seems to me that more grandmothers than grandfathers will be coming to graduation--the grandfathers are more likely to die during the college years. If you are seeing more students attending their grandmothers' funerals, it is probably due to people feeling closer to their grandmothers than their grandfathers.

Personal anecdata: One of my grandmothers died before my first birthday. The other three grandparents were still alive when I finished my bachelors degree, although one grandfather died later that summer. The remaining two grandparents died during my grad school years.

I still concur with your policy of wanting some verification. Most of your students are telling the truth, but there are some who seem to lose a grandparent every semester.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 03 Apr 2009 #permalink

Verification sounds nice, because there are students who lie, but sometimes we just don't have that option. I teach at a school with a strict honor code policy, and it means to some extent we are required to trust the students. We may not ask for doctor's notes or verification of deaths in the family. If we think a student is lying, though, we can certainly talk to the dean.

To some extent I think we have to treat college students as adults, and not keep tabs on them like they're in high school anymore. We don't double-check that coworkers who ask for leaves are actually sick or have sick family members. It feels frustrating that dishonest people may be getting away with something, but they'll have to make up the work sooner or later.

For my own amusement, I keep track.

Grandmother die off at a rate three times greater than grandfathers in my intro courses. That's for 4 years of data and nearly 800 students. For majors and graduate courses, the rate is about equal, and at a significantly lower rate than in intro courses, though my statistics aren't nearly as good on account of lower numbers (~150 students total in 4 years).

Based on that, I figure at least half of the excuses are false.

Interestingly enough, I did my bachelor degree with a girl who used the "dead grandmother" excuse 3 times - and she had only one living grandmother. Unfortunately, some students will tell a lie, any lie, to get out of an exam. For this girl, it was a bit sad when her grandmother actually did die in the last year of her degree.

Like Who, me? I experienced the death of a family member during the school year. I returned to school at the age of 54. Early in my first semester back, I learned that my Dad had cancer and it was spreading rapidly. He died just after Thanksgiving. It was my job to deliver the eulogy. The memorial service was scheduled for the same day as one of my finals. I emailed the prof and asked to reschedule the final. He responded by saying that since I had gotten A's on the other tests and attended class regularly, he would give me an A for the class and not to worry about the final. I will always be grateful for that understanding.

volcanista - I had an AARP card, three kids and two grandkids when I started my Masters. I think I deserved to be treated like an adult.

By been there (not verified) on 03 Apr 2009 #permalink

I my case one of my Grandmother died during finals in my last semester before graduating with my undergraduate degree. She was a mean spirited woman, who I did not like very much. I did not miss any classes, tests, or my graduation on account of it. She lived in Germany and was my father's mother. My other grandmother was the perfect picture of what a grandmother should be. I attended her burial (also Germany) and was the other member of my family living in the US to do so. She died about a year after I finished my graduate degree. OTOH, both my grandfathers were dead before I was born.

While I was in college, both of my grandmothers and my only living grandfather died. My other grandfather died before my parents met.

My grandfather died the night before my final in Physics. I showed up a the last-minute exam prep, and promptly burst into tears. I ended up deferring that one with the advice of my instructor. I remember trying to figure out the process for sorting out the deferred exam, and the person on the phone told me I had to bring in a copy of his death certificate. They didn't emphasize that I didn't need to get it *today* as he died in England the day before and I was in Canada.

In my classes, I tell people how sorry I am to hear of their loss, and that there are resources available through the Dean of Students Office if they need them, and when they get back (from the funeral or whatever) to bring in some momento from the funeral to excuse their absence. If they don't bring in the momento, I don't change the absence to "excused." It works well enough, I think. I hope it feels somewhat humane for the students who do indeed lose family members or friends.

I have a very non-traditional family and have always considered myself to have 3 grandmothers: my biological maternal & paternal grandmothers, and my adopted sisters' paternal grandmother (a distant relative). Perhaps with high divorce rates and more non-traditional families (adoption etc.) people really DO have more grandmothers now. Just food for thought.

I don't get many dying relatives (fortunately). I don't remember the relationships of the ones I've heard about - as many uncles and aunts as grandparents, I think. I don't generally ask for death certificates - that seems potentially cruel to the students who are genuinely grieving (and I'm concerned about running into taboos that I don't understand - my school is 20% Native American, and I know just enough about the funeral traditions of some local tribes to know not to ask). On the rare occasions that the deaths coincide with an exam, I ask for any kind of substantiating info - an obituary or a draft of the funeral program, more than a death certificate. But I haven't had that many cases where I've needed to ask. (If students are missing a couple classes with no major assignments due, I trust that they are telling the truth.)

My paternal grandfather died when I was just a kid and my paternal grandmother died in my last year of high school. My maternal grandparents died much later, after I had left school.
But during my first year of higher education (French "Classes Préparatoire") my dad died accidentally. I only missed 2 days of classes and one weekly 4 hour exam (yes we had weekly 4 hour exams). I nevertheless was held responsible for the material we covered during the week and had to make up the weekly one hour oral exam I missed the very next week (yes we also had weekly oral exams).
None of my teachers/professors doubted me, but I guess their stance was that the world went on and I needed to also.

Just please keep in mind that grandmothers do occasionally pass away. My mother had a grandmother pass away when she was in college during finals week and had a professor berate her because he didn't believe her "excuse". A cousin of mine, meanwhile, totaled a car trying to get back to college in time for a final after our grandfather's funeral because she didn't want to use his death as an excuse. Luckily my cousin wasn't hurt in the accident.

I know students may use this as an excuse, it does happen.

I suspect it's got something to do with the age of our students, the age of their parents, and thus the age of their grandparents. If the students are 18-22ish, then their parents could be 40-60ish, with grandparents likely in the 60-80ish age, which puts many of them in the right range for natural life span.

When it comes up, I take the official route - our university has academic deans who deal with these kinds of issues, obtain documentation they consider legitimate, and notify the appropriate faculty.

Any time students come to me with these excuses, I explain very gently and politely and compassionately that it's in their best interest to go speak with the Dean's office about this issue to get official documentation. I tell them the Dean's office will notify their faculty for them and save them the trouble, and that once I have that documentation, I'm more than happy to work with them once they return. The Dean's office is supportive and helpful, I don't have to call funeral homes, and I can feel at least a little more confident that I'm being fair to all the students who haven't presented such excuses.

My grandmother died the day before the final of a class I took as a post-bacc student at a large land-grant university, before grad school. The professor never doubted me or asked for proof.

I took the exam when I got back, and still broke down crying halfway through. He let me take a break until I felt better then come back and finish it. Besides just the general humanity of that response, he was an excellent teacher in every way and exactly the type of professor I hope to be.

I try to take that approach now as a TA. Better to me that some students get away with things than that I make students who have suffered genuine tragedy feel worse.

By hydropsyche (not verified) on 05 Apr 2009 #permalink

Thank you everyone!

I think it's clear that grandmothers (and other family members) do die during usual university-attending years, so we should expect to see quite a few deaths, and some genuinely upset students. But, thanks to Wendy's record keeping (post 8), quite a few of them might still be alive and kicking! Asking for some form of verification seems like a good idea, so that only the true cases get sympathy.

Though I guess if grandmothers are removed as an excuse (unless it's actually true), they'll just come up with some other story. My next quiz is in six weeks time, so I will eagerly wait and see what new events happen to my poor students.

ScienceWoman - remember that not all deaths and funerals have death certificates attached with them. How long did it take after grandpa disappeared and presumably died before a death certificate was issued? Can you imagine asking mom of a death certificate for her mother or father? Good grief.

My grandmother died just before my last finals, my first term at college. My family didn't tell me till after my exams were over so as not to freak me out for my tests. I made it home in time for the funeral. I was upset that they hadn't told me sooner but understood why they waited. My parents would have done anything they could to help me succeed in college. I feel sorry for kids who would lie about something like that to get out of an exam. That's just pathetic.

Darn it, I hit enter before finishing writing. I meant to end the above comment with this:

My own instance of lying to get out of an exam was much more cheerful! I lied about having to be in my sister's wedding, which had already taken place several months ago.

I'd like to add another to the list of people who only had grandmothers left upon reaching highschool.

Volcanista: I'm pretty sure if you are away from work long enough due to illness, a doctor's certificate is required, no matter how old you are (in my country it is usually required if you are away for 3 or more days).

By Katherine (not verified) on 12 Jul 2009 #permalink