Students don't question professors who miss office hours because of sick children or aging parents. So why are professors so untrusting of students who claim to have a sick or dying grandparent?
Every stage in life has its joys and sorrows. A typical university student is around 20 years old. His or her grandparents will be in their mid- to late 60s, 70s, or 80s. The death of a grandparent is something people often experience in young adulthood, just as the death of a parent brings grief in middle age.
The odds of any one grandparent dying during any given semester are, happily, low. The table below shows 2009 Canadian mortality rates - the number of people who died per 1000 individuals - by sex and age. An 80 year old granny has a 4.74 percent chance of dying in any given year; a 1.58 percent chance of dying in any given four month term (assuming deaths are distributed evenly throughout the year). Each individual 80-year-old grandmother, therefore, has a better than 98 percent chance of living through the term.
But In a class of 100 students, there may be 300, 400 or more grandparents (adding in step-grandparents and great-grandparents). Even though almost all of those grandparents are, as individuals, highly likely to live through the term, the odds of all of the grandparents making it through are actually fairly low.
I often teach classes of 65 or 70 students. To make some back-of-the-envelope calculations, I assumed this corresponded to a grandparent pool of 100 grandmothers and 100 grandfathers, half of whom are between 75 and 79, while the remainder are between 80 and 84. To find the odds of all of the grandparents living through the term, I multiplied together the odds of each individual grandparent living through the term.
It turns out, given the age and gender distribution assumed above, and Canadian mortality rates, the odds of all 200 grandparents surviving the term is just 16 percent. In large undergraduate classes, some grandparents will pass away almost every semester.
Now that I understand this, I don't worry about students asking for extensions or deferrals because of sick or dying grandmothers. Odds are, the excuse is legitimate. So I say something along the lines of, "I'm sorry to hear of your loss. Take the time you need. I will want to see a copy of the death certificate or obituary, however. Please provide it to me before the end of term."
I think some undergraduate students don't realize just how public and well documented deaths are. It's far easier to verify whether or not a grandmother died than it is to know whether or not a student was genuinely too sick to complete an assignment.
What about the rare student who lies about his or her grandparents' health? Providing false documents or false excuses is misrepresentation. It is a violation of academic integrity, and typically carries heavy penalties. It's also tempting fate.
So, in general, I believe my students. But I still don't know why so many more grandmothers seem to die during the course of an average semester than grandfathers.