Dear Mentor: Coping with grief during grad school?

Dear Mentor,

I recently lost my mom to breast cancer after several years of illness. I am currently a Masters student in a public health program, and opted to withdraw for a semester to spend time with my family during my mom’s final weeks, and to help my dad in the months immediately following her death. Six months later I’m back at school attempting to play catch-up. While my institution (finally) agreed to work with me and allow me to finish up my classes from home — so I’m able to graduate on time — I still missed out on most of a semester’s work, research, and interaction with professors and mentors. As I am beginning the crazy process of applying to PhD programs, there are times that it feels I have to work twice as hard to make up for lost time (and situations like not being admitted to my discipline’s honor society, or having a transcript with several “W“s on it), while also dealing with the loss of my mother. Any advice on coping with grief during an otherwise sometimes stressful period in my life — and in applying to PhD programs at the same time?

From Leslie Walker

I’m so sorry for your loss of your mom, and so thankful that you made the decision to take a break from your Masters to have the time with your mom and dad. You probably know about the concept of “opportunity costs,” in which choosing one opportunity, like taking that break, has other costs. I have no doubt that you made the right decision, because you will never have that time again. Graduate school, on the other hand, is a lot less time-sensitive. Your drive to get caught up and graduate on time and apply to doctoral programs is admirable, but not critical. So the first thing to consider is, do you want to do all these things at the same time, or do you want to slow down the process?

No one else can make that decision for you: the choice to catch up with your classmates and graduate on time may cost you in higher stress, less sleep, or less time to grieve. Without knowing your specific situation, I’m guessing that the decision to slow down and wait a year to apply to doctoral programs would have costs too, like maybe having to find a job in between. But if you don’t apply now, would that give you the time you need to request late consideration for the honor society, to clean up your transcript, and to have the time you need now to rest and grieve at your own pace? If you have a helpful advisor, it might be worth asking how important it is to stay on track with your class and apply this year.

Sometimes we are so good at multi-tasking and accomplishing things that we use our to-do list to distract ourselves from sadness or grief. Work is often really helpful in times of grief, giving us measurable things to do, daily structure, and connection to friends and colleagues. But I would encourage you to make sure you have enough time now for friends or folks from your church. Do you have someone to talk to when you’re thinking about your mom, or just need a hug? If your class work and application process is too demanding, you might be tempted to ignore your own needs for love and support. Please don’t. It’s really important to protect time with others, and time alone, especially now. Journaling can be really helpful while we grieve, because it lets us capture memories (especially of the last few months) that we might otherwise lose. It also sometimes helps us think through difficult decisions.

Whenever you do apply to PhD programs, no one will fault you for taking time off to be with your mom before she died, or for taking an extra year to finish up your degree. I would be very straightforward if any interviewers asked about this, and expect them to be appropriately understanding, and if they aren’t, question if that is the place you would want to be! If you do stick with the full-steam-ahead plan, and anyone asks about your “W” grades or not being in the honor society, use the same straightforward approach and emphasize your love of public health and eagerness to continue.

Grief can be unpredictable. If you find yourself suddenly tearful, or if something or someone triggers a memory of your mom, please don’t think that you have to cover it up. Unless you’re dealing directly with patients or clients, most fellow students or colleagues should be understanding if you need to take a break for a few minutes to collect yourself. There’s no right way to grieve, and no right amount of time. But if you’re too busy to grieve now, chances are good that the grief will resurface at some point in the future, and it may be tougher to work through then. The goal is to continue your work at the pace that allows you to care for yourself, not just during the early stages of grieving, but moving forward as well.

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