A former colleague was approached in 1998 by a teary-eyed student in his seminar. The student had missed a couple of weeks of work, and he explained that he had been in a car accident with his twin brother. The brother had died in the accident. He pleaded with my colleague to allow him back in the seminar. My colleague let him return to class and helped him make up the work he had missed. The student did well in the class.
The following year the student asked my colleague for a letter of recommendation for medical school. My colleague agreed and in his letter he devoted a long paragraph to how this student had dealt with this horrible tragedy. Then my colleague got a note from the dean. During an admissions interview an interviewer had asked the student to say a few words about his brother. "Oh, he's doing great" the student exclaimed."He's starting at Goldman-Sachs in September." Busted.
The university decided to expel the student a month shy of graduation, and of course medical school was out of the question. The parents sued the university and my colleague had to give a deposition because he was named in the suit. The next day the student stepped in front of a passing Amtrak train. The suit was dismissed, but it very easily could have ruined my colleague's entire career. It certainly contributed to ending the kid's life.
So now whenever a student approaches me with a tragedy my stock response is: "I am very sorry to hear that. I am not a mental health professional so I am not equipped to help you. Here is a list of mental health resources available to students through the health center. Please have someone from the health center contact me so that we can make arrangements to help you finish your work."
I'm not being cynical, just rational. The moral of the story is that the best of intentions can lead to unintended consequences that really are tragic. I don't assume that the kid is lying. I just acknowledge that I am not trained to deal with the situation.
For the more cynically inclined, another colleague of mine always pulls the student's home address from the registrar and sends a condolence card to the family. Only once has she received a thank you note. In every other instance she has received either an apology or an angry phone call from the putatively dead parent. But the student always drops the class immediately, which solves the real problem.
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