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Entering grad school with a sick family member


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Now that I have received a few acceptances and am really getting ready for grad school and for a move, I am worried. My dad is very sick and entered end-stage COPD last year. It's really hard to anticipate how long he will live, but it is likely it won't be through my graduate studies. Not only do I feel grief over my dad being sick, but it is a difficult disease for caregivers (my mom and sister) to handle. I am feeling EPIC guilt about this. I haven't lived near home in a long time (parents are in Cali, I've been in Colorado and Utah) and now I am considering moving even further away. My mom says I need to move forward with my life, but I just feel terrible. I am waiting to hear from a school near them (Redlands) but my chances are very slim considering I am an out-of-fielder and have a low GPA. I am planning to move home for the summer to spend time with him, but if I go to Boston my summer will be very short. I would be home more often than I have been these past handful of years, but that still doesn't feel like much right now. At the same time, I am 28 and am so eager to enter graduate school but I feel pretty selfish. I just don't know what to do. Am I doing a bad thing if I move away to school?

I have never had to deal with anything like this before, so all thoughts and experiences are greatly appreciated.

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Hey Plume, first of all, I just want to say I'm so sorry that you are in this situation. It sounds like you and your parents are close, which makes it even harder.

I'm in a really similar position - my father has had stage 4 cancer for the past few years, and I already live halfway across the country from my parents. I'm about to start a PhD program in the Fall, and I, too, sometimes feel conflicted about whether I should really be moving home to spend time with my family (we try to see each other as often as we can, about once every two months or so) - though living away from home, I felt guilty about this long before I ever applied to grad. school. My Dad promises he'll be around when I finish, but obviously he only has so much control over it. 

I think the right path for you is a very personal choice, based on what your relationship with your family is like, whether you feel you can handle continuing to live away from them, and to some extent, the progression of your dad's illness. I'm an only child and very close to my parents (my Mom also has a limited support structure to care for my Dad). However, my Dad is currently stable, and I know for sure that while he'd love to have me home, he doesn't want me to hold up my life, or miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to move home and stay with him. That being said, if/when he starts to decline, I've given a lot of thought to coming home for a while. It's really, really hard sometimes to be so far away, especially when he was really sick from chemo, but there are some things that help us feel connected - Skype/FaceTime calls, visiting as often as we can, keeping open communication about how things are going on any given day. When things are tough, sometimes my parents just need a safe space to vent, share their fears, or have a good laugh. I find this kind of support to be a small way I can help from afar, both so I feel "hooked in" to what's happening and so I feel like I'm contributing something.  It's important to remember, too, that you should have the option to take leaves of absence, if needed. At some point you will probably have to make a decision to put your Dad before anything else, but that time may not be now. Just out of curiosity, could you defer your admission if you needed to?

Its also important to take care of YOU and your needs. It's not wrong, or unhealthy, or selfish to want to pursue your career during such a difficult time - if you don't maintain some semblance of sanity and happiness in your life, your Dad's illness can engulf your whole world and throw you into an emotional situation that is really difficult to crawl out of. On the flip side, graduate school can be so stressful that your Dad being sick could affect your ability to keep up with your studies. I think it's ultimately about finding an emotional balance that allows you to process your feelings about what your family is going through, while still getting up every day and being as present as you can be in your own life. Oh, and other forms of self-care -- talking to a therapist or clergy member, engaging in meditation, art or journaling, exercise, meals or coffee with friends -- any activities that can give you a short "pause" on what is probably always in the back of your mind.

i don't know if anything I've said is helpful - I've actually never tried to talk to someone about how to deal with this. (It's also too late at night for me to be super eloquent - sorry!). I sincerely wish you and your family strength, health, and joy. Congratulations on your admissions!!

Edited by MaytheSchwartzBeWithYou
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@MaytheSchwartzBeWithYou Thank you so, SO much for your response. I know that only I can determine what is right for myself and my family, but I have felt so "stuck in my own head" in these worries. I have been considering deferment, but I am wondering if that would not be the right choice—I can't predict the future, and maybe in two years I could move home at the most critical time to help my family. It's just hard to know, and although there is no such thing as recovery at his point in COPD, it is hard to guess how long he has. However, I am realizing that I need to look into deferment or leaves of absence options. I can't tell you how much hearing all of this helps!

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1 hour ago, plume said:

@MaytheSchwartzBeWithYou Thank you so, SO much for your response. I know that only I can determine what is right for myself and my family, but I have felt so "stuck in my own head" in these worries. I have been considering deferment, but I am wondering if that would not be the right choice—I can't predict the future, and maybe in two years I could move home at the most critical time to help my family. It's just hard to know, and although there is no such thing as recovery at his point in COPD, it is hard to guess how long he has. However, I am realizing that I need to look into deferment or leaves of absence options. I can't tell you how much hearing all of this helps!

I'm glad I could help, and please feel free to PM me if you want to talk about grad school, dealing with terminal illness in your family, etc. (though I'm sure you well know how different, and sometimes isolating, life feels once your family is in a situation like this). My dad is stable on his current chemotherapy, but at some point it will stop working...and he has a rare cancer, so there are only so many forms of treatment available. So much of this is a waiting and hoping game - stability is a real blessing.

In terms of deferment/leaves of absence, it's really important to know your options and how to enact them should you need to make a decision on short notice. Every school/field is different - programs in my field don't typically allow deferred admission, but most if not all schools allow leaves of absence, and my new school allows multiple leaves of absence for various reasons. I find some comfort in the fact that these options aren't "I have to quit the program" choices, but rather short-term solutions that allow me to attend to important issues in my life without having to worry about  how it affects everything else.

Edited by MaytheSchwartzBeWithYou
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