My story began and was written before the current crisis, which is causing waves of grief and trauma for numerous graduate students and professionals. I was fortunate, if there is such a thing for grief, to have had a “traditional” grieving process. I was able to attend a funeral and have others there with me. This is unfortunately not true for many during these times. It is a hope that you can take this and adjust the overall themes for your situation, and to know that the overwhelming pain of grief can and will ease over time, even when it feels impossible.

I am a fourth-year doctoral student, and my father died close to a year and a half ago. At the time, I was finishing the second year of my program. No one could possibly prepare you for the loss of a parent, but especially not when you are in the midst of a graduate program. I was in the middle of taking classes, nearing the end of my first practicum, and preparing to start writing my dissertation when I experienced one of the hardest losses of my life.

My Story

My story began the Friday before Memorial Day in 2018. That evening and the morning of June 8, just two weeks later, will be two days that will forever be ingrained into my memory. Before this day, my dad had not been doing well for a while. He was sleeping more, lacking energy, and not eating. We were all dumbfounded by what was wrong, and my mom had to take him from doctor to doctor to doctor, yet no one could tell us what was wrong.

It all came to a head on that Friday when I came home from school, and my dad was much worse than before. He could barely hold silverware to eat dinner, cognitively, it appeared like he wasn’t fully aware of where he was, and he was forgetting information he otherwise would have known. We called for an ambulance, and I remember standing in the living room just watching the EMTs working on my dad and not knowing if I would ever see him again.

After that night, we all believed that the worst was over. My dad was stabilized at the hospital, he was starting to eat again, and he was sounding like himself. After a week in the hospital, my dad was taken to a nursing home, as we were told by the doctors, so he could get his strength back to return home, but ultimately, he would be returning home. No one knew what another week would bring us.

On June 8, it was a Friday morning, and I was getting up to go to work at my school’s library. I didn’t get up until 8:00 AM even though I meant to leave much earlier so I could also work on assignments, papers, and other things that were due. For some reason, I just could not get up any earlier despite the phone continually ringing at 5:00 AM. I both wish I had and am grateful I didn’t pick up the phone at that moment.

I was getting up and was about to get dressed to leave when the phone started ringing again. My mom was also busy getting ready to go visit my dad in the nursing home. I looked at the caller ID, and I saw that it was the nursing home my dad was staying at. I picked it up and handed the phone to my mom. That morning all I remember is standing in the living room and hearing my mom say into the phone, “What do you mean you couldn’t revive him?” And that was how I found out my dad had passed away early that morning.

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

I was far from being okay after my dad passed away. I was constantly told by others that I needed to be strong and that I shouldn’t “fall apart” (e.g., start crying). I was reminded by my strongest support systems that it was okay to “fall apart,” especially at that time. 

Grief can be messy, and there is certainly no linear path to grieving. You can feel just fine and almost “normal” one day and a “crying mess” the next day. It is okay to cry and to grieve, especially when the loss you experienced was a significant loss (and don’t let anyone but you determine what is significant). Be kind to yourself during the days where you need to cry and grieve, and remember that crying or “falling apart” does not mean that you are weak. It merely means you are hurting, and that is okay.

Take Care of Yourself

One of the most important things you can do during a time of grief can also be one of the hardest things you can do at the same time. That would be to take care of yourself. That first day of hearing of my dad’s passing, I could not eat at all. In fact, those first few days were the hardest days to eat or sleep. I was in shock, and the whole situation seemed so surreal. At times, it seemed nearly impossible to do things that, at other times, would have been enjoyable. I went out to dinner with a friend. My friend wanted to take me out, and everything in me wanted to say “no.”

Self-care will differ from person to person. Whether it is watching your favorite movie, listening to your favorite songs, or watching your loved one’s favorite movie, it is important to engage in some form of self-care. Family members listened to my dad’s favorite songs. Me? I couldn’t do that. It caused too much pain. I talked with friends over the phone, text, and Facebook. I allowed friends to support me in their own way.

Get and Utilize Support

Emotional support during this difficult time is so very important, whether it comes from a supportive professor, friends, family, or a peer support group. Grief can sometimes feel like an emotional rollercoaster, and it can be helpful to talk about it with others. Sometimes it is just being able to say that you’re not having a good day and not to be told that you should feel otherwise is the best support you can have during this time. The grief and hurt can’t be fixed. You can only go through it.

I was fortunate that I had some supportive professors during this time in my life. One professor, who was not one of my current professors during that summer semester, was one of the most supportive. She had heard, from another student, what happened, and she took the time to email me and told me that I was in her thoughts. I was not one of her advisees, and I was not taking any of her classes at that time, so the fact she reached out meant so much to me, especially at that time. All my professor did was provided emotional support but this meant the world to me, especially since she didn’t have to reach out.

Good support is so important, especially at this time. I also obtained a lot of support from friends both inside my program and outside of it. At the time, I was working in the school’s library, and one of my friends was able to take several of my shifts so I could stay home. Friends were also able to talk or text me without asking too many questions.

Get Accommodations if Needed

I was in the midst of taking summer classes and was preparing to end my diagnostic practicum when my dad passed. I ended up taking an incomplete for one course and an extension for a final paper for another class. I was also lucky that my diagnostic practicum was incredibly supportive, and I was able to take time off during the initial days and week that followed my dad’s passing. I was able to return after a week and a half to finish up, but I took more time for classes.

Take the time you need to grieve. Even if that may mean extending your time in your program. It’s more important to take care of yourself. Maybe it would be helpful to have one year of just taking classes, instead of classes plus practicum, while you are grieving.

Conclusion

My journey through grief while managing to go through a clinical program was, and is, going to be different from other people’s journeys. Grief can be a whirlwind of emotions. Although the journey through the grieving process will be different for each person, some of the points I made in this post will hopefully help someone get through their graduate program during this horrible time.

Sarah Netzky, MA

Sarah Netzky is a fourth-year student completing her doctor of psychology program in clinical psychology at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at National Louis University in Chicago, which is an APA approved teach-out of Argosy University. She completed a master’s degree in clinical psychology counseling practice from Roosevelt University in 2014.

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