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” But for many teaching graduate students, junior faculty, and even seasoned professors who aren’t quite so accommodating, responding appropriately to these student missives can be tricky. A few professors sent me samples of messages they’d sent to students in the past.

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“When it comes to death, I am firmly in the compassion zone,” says Lisa Guerrero, an associate professor of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University.

Even though she has had her share of suspicious death excuses, Guerrero says, she’s seen plenty of real, unexpected deaths too. “Death is traumatic, and no one knows how to handle it perfectly, so maybe the student’s delivery of the excuse only sounds suspect because she’s traumatized and doing the best she can,” she says.

But this crime, which veteran professors say has long been part of the folklore of teaching, is a real phenomenon. It’s called the “Dead Grandmother Problem.” Many years ago, Mike Adams, a biologist at Eastern Connecticut State University, studied the problem and proved that there’s definitely a correlation between grandparent deaths and exams.

After collecting data for 20 years, Adams concluded that a student’s grandmother was far more likely to die before midterms than at any other time of the year.

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