Guide to Graduate School Grief

Hi friends.  I’m glad to be back in this space.  I hope you enjoyed reading Meridith’s life update last week.  While we all have our own struggles, my year has been particularly difficult.  This is your warning that I’m going to talk a lot about death and grief, so if you’re not in the place to read about that, I totally understand if you bail now.  I’ve bailed on a lot over the past 365+ days. But, bailing out means keeping your boat floating, and, with lots of help, I’ve managed to do that too.

“To be careful with people and with words was a rare and beautiful thing.” Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

I want to write about this, in the imperfect way I am able, because I know it will help someone else to read it.  Maybe you? We know that graduate school is uniquely difficult on folks’ mental health. I want you to know you’re not alone.  If this isn’t you, but it is someone you know, I suggest you start thinking about the support you can offer. This twitter thread is a great place to start.

I want to want to write about my brother specifically, but I can’t do that yet.  The short version is this. Last summer my older brother, Jake, was in a car accident on the way home from work.  By midnight on the day of the accident I was flying home to Kentucky. After nine days in a coma, my brother died.  

I want to write this to talk about my own experience over the last year as someone grieving as a graduate student.  I want to talk about the things that helped me and the ways that this type of pain gets mixed up in the head of one anxious, highly driven person.  I don’t intend this to be prescriptive. I know everyone’s grief and grieving processes are unique, and you don’t have to be grieving a death to have some of these things resonate with you.  I formatted this as a list of dos and don’ts, but there are no dos and don’ts.  There is no way to do this wrong.

I thought, in the hours we spent planning the funeral, that when this was all over I would want to write everyday. But, as the weeks passed, I felt my grief like cotton stuck in my throat.  I want to write about this because I think it will help me too.

Guide to Graduate School Grief (to be taken as loving insight with the full knowledge that only you know what is best for you)

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Do see a therapist. Graduate school is hard on mental health in the best of times. Talk therapy isn’t a panacea, but it’s sure as hell helped me and a lot of other folks I know (Editor’s note: ::raises hand::). Plus, trauma has a way of making mental health issues that were manageable before worse. For me, anxiety I had previously kept in check with a strong cocktail of exercise, a Type A personality, and reading a lot of FanFiction at night when I couldn’t sleep became oppressive. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t had a designated space to sort though some of the really dark shit my anxiety brain was telling me.  More than anxiety, I do not know how I would have weathered the situational depression I found myself in without professional help. Therapy and a PI that treated me like a human being were the main things that kept me from dropping out of my graduate program.

Related. Don’t be shy about telling folks what’s up with you, but remember that you have complete control over who you tell and when. You don’t owe anyone the details of your sadness, but it is a perfectly acceptable thing to email a collaborator to say, “I am dealing with a personal tragedy. I can no longer do the thing I said I’d do.” Anyone who doesn’t appreciate the way life knocks us all on our asses sometimes doesn’t deserve your time as a colleague (this is a paraphrase of something a mentor actually said to me).  Do the best you can for today, whatever that best is. That said, this is something I struggle with in particular. A year out from tragedy, I’m really frustrated when grief still determines how so many parts of my life are going. I am trying to use this experience to expand my empathy for others. I will have a PhD and be someone’s boss someday (repeat until true). When the time comes, I want to be as understanding of others as folks in my life have been of me.

Do make time for exercise if it’s something that’s important or helpful to you. In the year after my brother’s death, I ran two half marathons, hiked more miles than I had in the previous four years, and played dozens of soccer games. I know it’s not for everyone, but team sports is really where it’s at for me. I’ve played on three soccer teams during my PhD program. One I played on since my first year and those guys are my friends. They knew about my brother and sent me a card that made me feel supported and thought of in a way I didn’t realize I needed. The other teams were newer and it was equally useful to have somewhere to go for a few hours a week where no one treated me any differently than they had when my brother was alive. I’m, at best, aggressively average at soccer, but this is not the first time the sport has bolstered me through a struggle.  I’ve always felt prioritizing physical health was key to my success in school, and I am double sure that’s true now.

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Don’t feel bad when you ignore texts for days and never return calls.  Do take your friend’s calls when you can.  Folks who love you, they will understand.  

Do eat your vegetables, but also eat chocolate whenever you want. I highly recommend Trader Joe’s for their large array of microwaveable meals that have some nutritional value.

Do take some time to get out in nature.  A month after my brother’s death I slept walked through the annual Ecological Society of America conference.  On the solo road trip back from Portland to Davis, I camped at Crater Lake National Park. I have never been so grateful for my healthy legs and lungs as they carried me down to the lake and up a mountain.  I lay in my hammock and drank wine and watched shooting stars. It was the first of many times I would realize how much beautiful things can hurt, and how much I need them regardless.

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Don’t compare your trauma to someone else’s. We all do it, and it’s the biggest waste of energy possible. I’m sorry to say I have a little grief club I’m a part of in graduate school.  I’m sorry that other people are hurting too, but the tragic comradery is actually great. Part of grief is feeling really, truly alone, and thinking that other people are better off or worse off in their tragedy only makes this worse. Misery actually does love company, and there’s really nothing wrong with that.  Find people who understand in your personal circles or in support groups.

Do take your time about returning to work. I wish I’d done a better job of this, as I think it might have made me more effective in the long run. Take as much time as you are able to, and I hope that’s the time you need.  Being able to take time away from work is a gigantic privilege, and if you have to return to work before you’re ready, take a moment and think about how it’s going to impact you. Try to tell the folks you trust that you will need them to bolster you in other areas.

Don’t get down on yourself about your body. At least do your best. It’s such a waste of brain space.  I’m not the best at this one, but I’m working on it.

Do find some tasks that are direct and manageable. I will reflect on the last year in many ways, one of which is that it was the least productive year of my life.  Turns out, my value as a human isn’t actually one-to-one correlated with my productivity (a revelation). You know what though? Shout out to lab work. Shout out to repetitive tasks where you can turn on an audiobook and turn off your brain.  Shout out to my husband who brought me burritos on campus at eleven at night and never judged my decisions to power through samples for 12 hours and stare at the TV for the next 24. Shout out to checking something, anything, off my to-do list and feeling that tiny jolt of competence and accomplishment.

Don’t worry if all your house plants die.  I watered my plants maybe 5 times in the last year.  I literally texted my lab mate last week to congratulate myself on remembering to water them.  I think I called it a ‘radical new phase of grief recovery.’

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Do get a dog, or find a dog to hang out with you.  I took the ‘there can never be too many emotional support animals’ approach and took my dog on many doggo play dates.  I also got a kitten. *shrug*

Do appreciate those friends who push you when you need to get unstuck and those friends that will marathon Steven Universe with you at inappropriate times of day.  I’m talking about you friends who pulled me out of my house to attend concerts, drank coffee with me in your kitchens, put up with my tears in the field, and offered to receive an accountability text from me every day when I got out of bed.  Say thank you as often as you can. (Thank you.)

Do be as gentle with yourself as you are able to be.  Over the last year, I haven’t always been nice. I know I was even mean sometimes, and I’m not proud of that.  I’m sure I’ve let some people down. I know I let myself down a lot. I also know I became a more empathetic person than I was in the past.  I’m slower to assume folks are being difficult and quicker to wonder what’s going on with them, if maybe they need help. I know I still love science, because I don’t think I could have talked myself out of quitting something this many times in 365 days if it wasn’t where I was supposed to be right now.  I know if I can be gentle with others, kinder than it’s necessary to be, then I can pass that same grace on to myself.

On the 3rd of July, the one year anniversary of my brother’s death, I drove out to Pinnacles National Park and hiked ten miles while listening to the entirety of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s reading of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.  Do you ever finish a book and all you want to do is clutch it to your chest?  On July 4th, I wrote the passage below.  It’s one of the only memories I have of the period immediately around Jake’s death that is both true and bearable.  It makes me feel strangely good, because it’s proof I can do hard things. We are capable of doing so many hard things.  I know you are. If that means today you cook yourself dinner, send an email you’ve been dreading, head out in the field when you’d rather stay in bed, or finish editing your R code, it’s really all the same.  You’re doing the hard things, and you are doing so well.  I’m really proud of you.

You dig your brother’s grave.  You’re on the farm down by the creek, behind the swell of the hill leading up to your childhood home.  Over there is the place where he dropped a live crawdaddy down your shirt as a child. Here is where you would pitch your tents when he threw parties with his friends and invited you.  This place feels so alive, which makes all this so much more incongruous. You feel out of step with time. You feel too big for your skin.

Standing there with a shovel, you have no idea how to approach this task, but you dig with your sister and your father while your mother, your brother-in-law, and your husband watch.  You mother asks to use your shovel so she can shift a few scoops of earth up and out. You prepare a space for your brother together. Up and out. Up and out.

Here is another thing you weren’t sure you were capable of doing.  But it’s done.

In the looking back, which you still can’t do very well a full year later, you realize digging the grave is like the eye of a storm.  The heartbreak is still with you when you’re digging, but you laugh when you and your brother-in-law poorly manage an overfull wheelbarrow.  You think of all the brilliant moments of your young life, which took place in this exact spot. You feel like this is a good place.  You feel someday, maybe, you might feel good like this place feels good.  In a way that is hard, alive, and real.

And with stutters and missteps and backslides, you do.      

IMG_4969Additional Resources:

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15 thoughts on “Guide to Graduate School Grief

  1. This hits me right in the heart. Especially the part about bailing out of your own life. I’m so glad you shared this and I’m so glad we’re here, doing our best.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you Rachel! This is beautiful and I will share it with friends and loved ones. Glad you’re writing again, and grateful I know you ❤

    Liked by 2 people

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