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Has anyone lost a parent or someone close to them while in grad school?


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My mom passed away unexpectedly two months ago, two weeks after I had officially finished my first year of grad school. I returned to school two weeks after her death to take a class. I made it through the class, but I find it is a continual struggle. I have lost all focus and motivation. I don't care about my project or my degree, and some days it is a challenge just to get up and go to my office. My mom and I were extremely close, and I know she would want me to continue on. It is one thing to know this, and an entirely different thing to be able to do so. While I am not thinking of dropping out, (I really don't see that as an option) I'm also not sure how to go on.

I'm just wondering if anyone else has had a similar experience, and if it gets any better.

Thanks.

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Not in graduate school, but I lost my dad during undergrad. The first semester, it kinda felt like everything was just a bit set apart- it was doable, but a struggle. But it did slowly get better- never really goes away, but it does get better.

I would recommend against dropping out- having something else to focus on can help a lot. I know you said you weren't thinking about it, but I'm reinforcing it. Having something to throw yourself into can really help you get past it.

One thing I would recommend, is to let your advisor/PI know that it happened- not asking for slack, per se, but it can help for them to know you're going through a major disruption in your life.

I'd also recommend that you might look to your schools counseling services- it can be easy to slip into severe depression after a loss like this, and the earlier you can start working your way out of it the better.

Really, though, there isn't anything to do other than coping and letting time pass.

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I haven't had to endure anything like this, but I've had friends who have lost parents or siblings while in school. My roommate at study abroad lost her Dad right before she come out to the UK and met me, and a friend in my grad program just lost his brother.

The friend in my grad program took incompletes for his classes the term it happened; in my program, that means that you continue attending class and completing weekly readings, but you have two terms' time to complete your final paper (though most profs ask/encourage you to complete it over the break immediately following term). If your program has any options like this, it'd be good to keep in your back pocket in case things get tough for you toward the end of the term.

Last, I know your intention wasn't to come in here seeking sympathy, but I'd like to offer it. I'm so sorry for your loss.

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My dad passed away about 10 months ago. I was not in grad school though but instead in a full-time job. It can be really difficult managing your grief with all of your other responsibilities. Since you said your lost was unexpected, I am sure that is even more difficult since it came as a surprise. (My dad, on the other hand, had been sick for about a year or so before he passed away.)

People have told me that the first year just sucks. I would agree. Do you have a good support system where you are at? I found it helped a lot to talk with friends and family. I also second the recommendation to seek out counseling especially counselors who specialize in dealing with loss.

For this upcoming semester, could you take a reduced load course-wise? That might help you get back into the swing of things, but in a more manageable way. I also second the recommendation to speak with your advisor. He or she might have a lot of useful suggestions and recommendations that are university-specific.

It does get better though even though it might not seem like it. Time and having a good support system really helped me to ease my feelings of loss. I don't think the feelings will ever go away, but now I can talk about the funny memories that I had with my dad.

The other thing I realized is grief is so individualized. Don't feel like you have to jump right back into your daily life before your mom passed away. It might work better for you to do it incrementally and see how each step feels along the way. Also please feel free to PM me if there is anyway that I can help.

Edited by ZeChocMoose
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My dad passed away going into my last year of undergrad. Like your mom, he would have wanted me to go on, and I always used that as motivation to truck on regardless of how miserable I was.

Of course I went through a grieving process, and rested as needed, and sometimes just vegged for hours on end because it was the right thing to do at the time. If you're in a highly emotional state, sometimes it's okay to do what your body's telling you -- but don't lose total focus of what you're trying to accomplish. I took time off work and had a smaller class load than normal for the first quarter after his passing, but I continued on with research and made my professors aware of my situation in case they thought I was acting a little funny.

It's really tough, but it does get better with time, and having a good social support system works wonders. I'm the type who never really asks others for help in any situation, but sometimes it's better to allow yourself to be helped my friends and family. If people are reaching out to help you, don't prevent them from doing so.

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Thanks for all of your replies so far. My advisor was the first person I told, and while he definitely expects me to get my work done, he has been supportive without asking questions.

As far as support from my family and friends, it's a little tougher. I have one friend here at school who was initially supportive, but that has faded somewhat. The vast majority of my friends here never mention it. I don't fault them for it - I really think they have no idea what a grieving person could need, and I really don't ask for support because I feel it's a burden to for them to have to deal with my grief. My remaining family really doesn't talk about it much. They don't avoid the topic of my mom, but they've never been the type to express their emotions openly, which I think doesn't help anyone in this situation. My mom was the one family member I could always talk to with my problems, which makes this indescribably more difficult.

The idea of counseling didn't appeal to me at first, but I may look into it, since a few of you have suggested it. I've never really understood the concept of pouring myself out to a total stranger (this is not a judgement on others who do so, it's just never been comfortable to me), but I've also never had to deal with anything so difficult.

I won't have much in the way of coursework for the fall, but I am in the midst of my research season, which will go on for the next several months, so there's really no way to lessen the time I need to spend on that. I have realized that it's good to keep busy, but some days are harder than others just to keep it together.

Thanks again.

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my grandpa and aunt just died within 5 days of each other, a week before i was scheduled to move across the country to start my phd. my aunt was basically a mother to me so i've had a rough time. i postponed the move as much as i could, but it's definitely made it hard to be excited about the move and the program. i'm trying to just keep in mind how supportive of my aunt was of my grad school goals (her one regret was stopping at her masters and not getting a phd) and to remind myself of what an amazing, caring and intelligent teacher she was. my sympathies to you and others who've recently lost someone.

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For the love of all that's holy, get yourself to the school counseling center ASAP!! Friends are useful but you need a professional.

I personally haven't had a close relative die in grad school, but my marriage died, and it was HARD. One of my best friends here lost her mom just a few months before my divorce proceedings started and we did end up having similar symptoms. I had trouble concentrating. I cried at random times including in class.

Things that helped me (and her):

(1) As I said before, regular appointments at the school counseling center.

(2) Lots of other people to talk to, too.

(3) Telling the advisor ASAP--both of our advisors were incredibly helpful. Of course, it helped that we both serve as the 'backbone' of our respective labs--both of our advisors knew we would work our butts off once we recovered.

(4) Telling every prof in every one of our classes. ("I will have to miss a class"..."I am having trouble keeping up with the work because...") I was reluctant to do this at first but everyone was incredibly understanding. And the only class I floundered around in was the one in which the profs didn't know. I wish I'd told them, too.

(5) Forcing myself to exercise daily

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Lantern,

I'm afraid I don't have any experience in this sort of situation, but I can imagine that this must be very difficult for you. Graduate school is stressful enough, and losing a parent (or any loved one) is difficult enough, but to go through them both at the same time... that's just a lot.

I hope that you will consider seeking out help from the counseling center at your university. There certainly must be some resources available to you (probably for free!), and you'd probably be surprised how many graduate students take advantage of them. I'm sure that a counselor might have some suggestions or guidance for you, and it would probably help for you to feel like you're proactively taking control of a very difficult situation.

I hope you find some relief soon, and really, CONGRATULATIONS on chugging along with school. It must be very difficult, but like you've indicated, it's what your mother would want you to do.

Stay strong, and remember that the board is here for you if you ever need to talk! Best of luck!

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It takes time. I had 2 family friends and my father pass away within a week of one another about 7 years ago (2 friends were of cancer, father was suddenly during complications of surgery). A few words of wisdom:

Everyone grieves in their own way. What one person experiences isn't going to necessarily work for another. Expectations are unique. Please acknowledge this but seek someone to talk to. EVERYONE needs someone to talk to. Thankfully I had 2 friends that had lost their mothers around the same time and I was able to hash out anger with God and the raw pain with them.

Going along with that, it takes time to heal. It's taken me 5 years to really heal - my family still grieves to this day. You WILL have to continue to live; you are still alive and your life will go on. While it's healthy to grieve, people will continue to die around you - it's life. It's a part of life. Some of them will be long and you will be able to say good-bye. Some of them will be quick and painful. But it's inevitable. Love the people around you knowing this. Don't let it get you down, but celebrate it.

Take time off if you really think you want to quit something. Irrational decisions are made in the heat of the moment.

You are not a victim. Your grief will not overcome you. It will heal. This will not define you, it will be a blip in your life.

Talk to people. Express the difficulties you're having with the administration. Talk to your advisor about what you need. Talk to a counselor. Talk.

That's all I have right now. I'm truly sorry for you and your family; normally the Spanish apologize with "Lo siento" which directly means "I feel it" - I feel your pain and hope that you find someone to talk to about how you're feeling.

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Thank you all for your kind words and support. I would also like to extend my sympathy to all who have lost someone.

BassAZ, I found most of your post to be kind, but saying the death of someone who meant more to me than anyone else in the world is a "blip" in my life is callous, and insulting to the memory of my mother. If I lived to be 1000 years old, and the time I spent with my mother was a fraction of my life instead of a significant proportion of it, losing her and the grief that comes with that loss would still be much more than a "blip".

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Thank you all for your kind words and support. I would also like to extend my sympathy to all who have lost someone.

BassAZ, I found most of your post to be kind, but saying the death of someone who meant more to me than anyone else in the world is a "blip" in my life is callous, and insulting to the memory of my mother. If I lived to be 1000 years old, and the time I spent with my mother was a fraction of my life instead of a significant proportion of it, losing her and the grief that comes with that loss would still be much more than a "blip".

Hi lantern, I really am so sorry about your loss. I definitely agree that the grief you have over loosing someone is not a blip.....I lost my grandmother 7 years ago, for example, and I think that grief can be circular....there will be things that trigger a sharp feeling of grief even now, especially with all of my memories.

I guess the only advice I can give you is that yes, the grieving process will be hard, but definitely make sure to share this grief with others...talk to a counselor, or a pastor if you attend a church, a mentor/adviser, or even your friends and family. Don't try to do the healing process by yourself.

Edited by ZeeMore21
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My apologies if my words were callous; I was merely trying to illustrate that I hoped the grief would not define you. There will be much joy in your life and the grief you are experiencing is not something that should consume your life. As Zeemore said, there are certain times you will feel regret and sorrow that the person is no longer there.

I'm sorry that those words rubbed you the wrong way though - please take no heed to them if they don't help you. I wish you and your family the best.

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Hi Lantern,

The title of your post really struck me because I am experiencing the exact same thing. My mom unexpectedly and suddenly passed on about three months ago. The time has gone by in a blur but very slowly and very gradually I have started to feel a little bit better. I am so, so sorry for your loss and I relate to everything you wrote. I too felt like dropping out of my PhD, but kept with it because it was something my mom really supported and would have wanted me to continue with. I really didn't feel like continuing with school, but it has gotten better. I went back to campus after just a few weeks home and had to take an exam and then start fieldwork. I wasn't very productive at first but I've been letting myself take more time and have also let myself veg when needed. I've also tried to stay connected with friends and family. Talking to a few other friends who have gone through and are currently going through the same thing has helped too.

It is just a really unimaginable experience and felt surreal at first. I also had that feeling of being run over by a train and couldn't think or communicate much in those first few weeks. I would suggest you keep going with school. Try and stay focused as much as you can but also give yourself time out whenever you need it. You might want to just try going to counselling....try and find one who specialises in grief. I went to a counsellor on campus right away and it was comforting in a way when she told me other students had gone through the same thing and continued with their studies --- it really did seem impossible at first to work on my research.

Like Unlikelygrad mentioned, forcing myself to exercise daily has been helpful in calming my mind in the evenings. I was going on a lot of long 2 hour walks the first two months after and I have tapered off a bit now. I can tell it will take a long time to really come to terms with this kind of loss (my mom was my best friend too)...but it will get better. Again...I am sorry for your loss and wish you the best...

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