Grief in Graduate School: What You and Your School Can Do to Help
Recently I was scanning my lab notebook in our biosafety level 3 (BSL3) facility so that it would be electronically backed up. As I was scanning I got to the part of my notes dated October 2015, and my heart sank.
My Mom had a heart attack on October 10, 2015. Following a few weeks of promising recovery, she had a second heart attack on October 27, 2015, and passed away. She was my biggest supporter, closest confidante, and my best friend. It feels empty to describe our relationship with such cliché descriptions of a mother-daughter relationship, but it’s true. Needless to say, my world turned upside-down that October.
So what do my lab notes have to do with it?
I have the world’s most supportive PI, and for both my Mom’s initial heart attack and the second which caused her death, I was allowed time to go home and help my family. This means that when I flip through the pages of my notebook, diligently dated in the top right hand corner, I find gaps in time for both absences. It’s the strangest feeling to see the first (and only) time point of a growth curve on October 26, 2015, and to have the next page dated November 30, 2015 (marking the point at which I finally felt capable of working in the BSL3 facility without tears landing on my facemask). As I turn that page I am reminded of the pit in my stomach when my Mom didn’t answer her phone on October 27th, and the awful days that followed when it turned out my worst nightmare had happened.
It’s now the second year mark since my Mom passed. I’ve adjusted as best I can to the million ways that life has changed in her absence. And I think I’m ready to share my experience with managing grief in graduate school—because sadly, I know I’m not the only one dealing with this. My hope is that this post can serve as solidarity and a resource for other ECRs dealing with loss.
The facts on loss in graduate school
Data is scarce on the impact of losing a parent in graduate school. But we at the PLOS ECR blog are all about finding data to corroborate personal experience, so I’ll share what I did manage to find (and please, comment if you know of research that I’ve missed). Through this excellent piece aimed at students and professors, I discovered the work of Dr. Mary Alice Varga, an Associate Professor of Educational Research at the University of West Georgia. Varga’s work focuses on student grief and bereavement, and it appears she is the first to delve into the experience of graduate students, as most of the bereavement field focuses on children and undergraduates.
In a survey of 1,575 graduate students, Varga showed that 26% of graduate students experienced the loss of a significant person or pet within the preceding 24 months. She also examined the ways in which graduate students sought help; this work is revealing about how graduate schools could be serving their students better. Of her survey cohort, 93% of students found support from family, and 86% found support from friends. These numbers dwindle when it comes to seeking help from professors, professional counseling, or a student counseling center, with 11%, 4%, and 6% usage rates respectively.
Of course, you will instinctively lean on the people closest to you during mourning—my family, friends, and fiancé have been crucial to my personal process. But it’s in your own best interest and that of your PI and graduate school if everyone takes steps to help you adjust. Here’s what’s worked for me:
Don’t be afraid to tell your PI and labmates about what you are dealing with
In my first meeting with my PI after returning to the lab, she encouraged me to always be open with her about anything I might need as I took on more responsibility with my family and dealt with my own grief. She said that being informed would allow her to be a better mentor. A good PI will want the best for you, both professionally and personally. Mine continues to be understanding about when I need to take a half day to help out at home, with the knowledge that not being stressed about these obligations will enable me to work better when I am at lab. I’ve also been able to confide in some other key mentors within my lab, whose words of wisdom helped me to get back on my feet in lab.
If I’d suffered in silence, my work and my grieving process would be in a very different place. I think a lot of us worry that speaking up about a loss will make us seem weak, or put us at risk of being left out of certain opportunities. I’ve found that being open is the better route, and that speaking up about your personal needs in a professional setting and manner is an important skill to learn. And yes, probably those first weeks or months, your labwork will take a backseat. It’s reality that you will have to deal with funeral arrangements, sorting out care for young siblings/siblings with special needs/elderly family, etc. This is how it goes, and graduate students, more so than children or undergraduates I would imagine, end up thrust into decisionmaking roles within a family. Some probably even took on a decisionmaking role during the illness of our loved ones, since we’re well-versed enough in science and medicine to communicate with the doctors and read up about the medications being prescribed. Lab will be there when you are ready—there is nothing wrong with taking the time you need.
Take advantage of mental health services available through your institution
Between grief itself and navigating your altered role in your family, odds are that life is suddenly a lot more complicated. For this reason, I’m baffled that in Varga’s study, only 6% of people used their student counseling center. My PI gets the “PI of the century” award for getting me signed up for the mental health services at my school. I’m not sure I would have carved out the time for it without her encouragement. Fortunately, Weill Cornell has a wonderful program through our student insurance where I never even see a bill. We also have many wellness programs including ‘Peers Advocating Wellness,’ where students can meet with fellow students for support. Don’t be shy to utilize whatever your school has to offer, or advocate for services if they don’t exist yet. It will help you sort out all the change in your life to have a neutral, objective person with whom you can talk. Good faculty want the best for their students’ mental health; if your institution doesn’t have ample mental health services, seek out a trusted faculty member to get support in petitioning for change.
Be kind to yourself
Between juggling grief, new responsibilities, and lab, don’t forget to make time for yourself. Journaling, yoga, a weekend away; whatever will make your mind and body happier or healthier, I say go for it. As our blog has discussed before, academia is anxiety-inducing enough all on its own. And then life will happen to you while you’re in graduate school, in good ways and bad. Cherish all the good times, and seek strength in your favorite pastimes, your personal network, and your professional community during the bad times.
There are so many things about my experience that I’d like to share, but rather than attempting to cover it all and neglecting something important, I’ll instead close by mentioning some books/articles that have helped me, or that friends recommended. Please feel welcome to comment with other resources. From one grieving graduate student to another, I wish you fortitude and peace as you navigate this altered life.
- When the Unexpected Happens, Lorna Collier, July/August 2015, American Psychological Association.
- Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, And Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant, 2017.
- Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate and Spiritual Guide to Coping with Loss, Sameet M. Kumar, 2005.
- The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, 2005.
- Small Miracles from Beyond, Yitta Halberstam, 2014.
- Journal Through Your Grief, Robyn Lindsey, 2016.
Featured image is the author and her late mother, Susan Wright, holding hands during treatment after Susan’s first heart attack.
Collier, Lorna. When the Unexpected Happens, American Psychological Association, July/August 2015, http://www.apa.org/monitor/2015/07-08/graduate-unexpected.aspx.
Mary Alice Varga faculty profile, University of West Georgia, https://www.westga.edu/administration/profile.php?emp_id=90261.
Children and Grief Statistics, Children’s Grief Awareness Day, https://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/cgad2/pdf/griefstatistics.pdf.
College Parents of America, Research indicates the loss of a parent affects chances of obtaining a college degree, June 4, 2014, http://collegeparents.org/2014/06/04/research-indicates-loss-parent-affects-chances-obtaining-college-degree/.
Walker, Leslie, Dear Mentor: Coping with grief during grad school?, September 20, 2010, http://thewell.intervarsity.org/dear-mentor/dear-mentor-coping-grief-during-grad-school.
Mental Health Services, Weill Cornell Medicine, http://medicaleducation.weill.cornell.edu/student-resources/student-health-services/mental-health-services.
Wellness, Weill Cornell Medicine, http://studentservices.weill.cornell.edu/student-life/wellness.
Zhang, Cici, The ECR’s guide to managing anxiety and perfectionism in academia, May 17, 2016, https://blogs.plos.org/thestudentblog/2016/05/17/academiaanxiety/.