A Framework for Coping with Loss in Graduate School

My first year of graduate school was easily the most difficult year of my life. At least, that was true until I reached the end of my second year. 

On April 1, amidst the surreal time-warp of university shutdowns and COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, I lost my 28-year-old brother to suicide. With the help of friends, I notified professors, my advisor, and the dean–all of whom gave their condolences and left me with space to “take the time that I needed.” 

I found myself feeling utterly lost, unsure of how to fit my personal and professional life together when I didn’t know if I would ever feel okay again. All I wanted was some sense of normalcy. Until that point, nearly everything I knew about managing my time and staying sane (and happy) during grad school, I had learned through my peers. But I didn’t know anyone who had lost a loved one while in school. I felt isolated. There were no how-to articles or university guidelines for dealing with such a catastrophic loss, and I found myself irrationally wondering if I was doing something wrong. 

How much time did I need? Was it wrong to use work as a distraction? Could I keep choosing to only do the easy tasks that gave nearly instant gratification?

As someone who loves structure, I established my own guidelines, giving myself a set of core principles that I can refer back to in times of guilt and uncertainty. 

1. Ask for help

There’s a certain stubbornness, born of necessity, in us can-do grad students, that makes us want to handle everything ourselves. If we’re not drowning in our work, then we have been conditioned to think we’re doing something wrong. 

In the wake of my brother’s death, I gave myself permission to guiltlessly ask others to take over work for me. I asked labmates to take the reins on projects I had invested so much time into. I stepped down from teaching for the rest of the semester, despite the fact that my students were one of my favorite parts of my grad school experience. I asked friends to help me respond to emails because they often felt too overwhelming. 

Being able to trust in the genuine goodwill of others not only kept me from feeling buried by work, but it helped me cultivate gratitude and, instead of feeling burdened by my responsibilities, I felt supported by the community at my university. 

2. Set boundaries

It took most of my first year as a PhD student for me to disentangle my sense of self worth from my productivity and the approval I received from my superiors. Following the loss of my brother, I dove back into work, subconsciously allowing the lines to blur between who I am and what I do. In doing so, I allowed outside forces to dictate my behavior rather than doing what I needed to be there for myself. 

Once I noticed the pattern, I was able to give myself permission to do what I needed regardless of the expectations of others. Sometimes, this did in fact mean staring at my computer screen for hours on end or pulling long hours to make an application deadline. However, the difference was in the motivation–I was working for my own personal gratification rather than expectations that were put on me. 

3. Be gentle with yourself

The grieving process is, in my experience, non-linear. That is to say, every day gets better until I hit a week where I’m flooded with memories and hit by waves of raw emotions. There have been days where I’ve set myself up for a Zoom meeting, only to start crying two minutes before it starts. Other days I spend hours on the phone with family and, when I finally sit down in front of my computer, I feel like a wrung-out rag. 

Being gentle with myself means giving myself space for days to not go according to plan. Unfortunately, I can’t predict when I’ll have good days and I can’t force my emotions to be what I want them to be. I can, however, listen to what I need and not shame myself for feeling the grief of loss. 

The untimely loss of a loved one brings with it unimaginable pain and destabilizing life changes, wholly unique to the person experiencing them. I see through my experience that there are no right and wrong ways to cope and grieve, save for doing it in your own way. I hope that by sharing my story, others who find themselves in the same terrible position will feel empowered to create their own rules and know that they’re not alone.

Anna Nordseth
Anna Nordseth

Anna Nordseth is a tree enthusiast, lover of hot weather, and known among friends for getting overly excited about dogs and other adorable creatures. She is pursuing a PhD in Ecology at Duke University, studying the role of spider monkeys in tropical forest restoration. Over the years, her studies of natural science and travels have turned outdoor hobbies into a professional passion focused on environmental conservation. Despite her love for her work, Anna often spends her days in the office daydreaming about rock climbing, running, cycling, or basking in the sun.

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