Sometimes, tragic events in students' lives can't be overcome, and the best advice--indeed only advice--we can give is to drop the class, withdraw from the university, and find some activity more suitable to the situation.
I know this sounds cold and unforgiving, but consider the email I received last week from a student who has attended only a single class session this semester. Her reason for missing the first five weeks of the semester? She had to attend to her dying mother. Now, five weeks into the semester, she wants to leave her mother (still terminal and not yet dead) and return to school. In her email she promises to "make up" all the work that she has missed. She seems unbothered by the fact that my lectures and in-class discussions cannot be reclaimed. And she seems quite confident in her ability to keep up with the new material in the class even as she is working to complete the readings and assignments from the last five weeks.
She also seems to believe that education is not cumulative and that the material we covered in the first third of the semester won't be critically important to understanding the material we cover in the remaining weeks of the semester. Finally, she seems to think that she can do the missing work and keep up with the new work while she is grappling with the impending death of her mother.
Forget the fact that this student is treating me like a well-paid grading machine, my only real purpose to stamp evaluative letters and comments on the work my students hand in. Surely my role as a teacher is irrelevant. She doesn't need my instruction, only my judgement on the work she hands in for a grade. This of course speaks to her woeful misunderstanding of how education works, but this isn't what bothers me most about her email. What bothers me is that this student doesn't realize that trying to complete a course while her mother is in the process of dying is fundamentally a bad decision.
Her proper place is with her mother and family, spending as much time with her mother as she can in these final days. It's doubtful that she is in the emotional and psychological state to really engage with her courses and reap the full benefits of her education. She might manage a C in this class, but what will she really gain in the process? Isn't she better advised to withdraw from the course (and the university) and attend to this personal crisis?