The Grieving Grad: Loss in Graduate School
Talking about loss has never been unfamiliar for me. Since my oldest brother, Lemont, passed away in 1995, casually discussing death began to feel almost routine. Automatic. I learned how to compartmentalize my experiences so that they were almost distant, and could talk about death with ease. I thought I had developed a solid social and emotional toolkit to manage my loss and juggle my responsibilities.
In 2015, I enrolled into a MA/PhD program. Knowing very little about graduate school, and moving across the country from my hometown, my capacity to process trauma had changed dramatically. My first semester of graduate school was overwhelming, and I felt my mental health begin to deteriorate. I could not wait to see my family. During the spring break of my second semester, I returned home to attend my brother’s wedding.
Rested and rejuvenated, with the well wishes of my newly married brother to make him proud, I prepared to begin working on my thesis.
On March 15th, 2016, before I could leave for school, my cousin called.
“Clyde is gone.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I immediately hung up the phone, and silently drove home where I would call my father and confirm the news. My brother suffered a heart attack during his honeymoon.
I fell to the ground and screamed for what felt like hours.
I was devastated. I had no will to return to school. I had no will to do anything.
While I experienced several losses in undergrad, this loss was particularly close to home, and graduate school made it significantly harder to deal with. I was already struggling with my coursework, and I returned to my apartment without the support system that I had in my hometown.
In college, I was close to home, had the support of many friends, and was close to spiritual spaces that helped me navigate any trauma that came my way. My graduate education came with a looming sense of isolation, absent of the support structures that helped me survive undergrad.
The loss of my brother hit me like a ton of bricks. I began to spiral into a deep depression over the course of at least a year. I found myself unable to concentrate in class, struggling to keep up with assigned readings, and feeling completely unable to write anything. I failed my statistics course, and didn’t finish the others. My inability to keep up added to the weight of my grief, and I found myself coping in unhealthy ways.
Grief is not linear.
The “five stages of grief” -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance -- do not occur progressively, nor does grief end after you experience them all. It feels more like an emotional rollercoaster with no end in sight.
My graduate experience became a matter of survival, and without the support network I started to build, I am not sure that I would have made it this far. The greatest challenge I have learned to overcome is asking for help. The pressures of graduate expectations are often compounded by feeling invisible and underrepresented in higher education. Asking for help confirmed that I did not belong here; that I was not good enough to finish what I had started. Even worse, I began to feel like maybe I did not need to exist at all. Sometimes asking for help becomes a life or death scenario. If I didn’t reach out and be honest about the severity of my depression, I am not sure I would be here to write this story today.
I wish I could end this essay with an uplifting story of how I overcame, but the truth is, that’s not how grief really works.
With the support of my new chosen family, I started therapy and transitioned out of alcohol dependency, irregular sleeping cycles, and unprovoked crying spells. Despite perseverance, grief remains a consistent part of my journey. Sometimes I am reminded that my brother is no longer with me and it feels as fresh as it did two years ago. Sometimes, I miss a deadline and feel like I am imposter. Most days, it was a matter continuing to push forward even though I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.
There is a light, though; The space in between the moments that knock me down becomes longer and longer every time, and every time I fall, it becomes easier to pick myself back up. I know that when I finally cross that stage, every struggle would have brought me closer to allowing my brothers’ legacies to live through me.
Keep pushing. Keep persevering. Cling close to your tribe, and remember that it does get easier.
Dedicated to my brothers, Lemont Antonio Thomas and Clyde Martin III.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Samantha Dawn Martin is a MA/PhD Student in Sociology at Georgia State University from Chicago, Illinois. Her research focuses on the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality, particularly as they apply to the experiences of Black and Latinx women and adolescents. She currently lives in Atlanta with her two cats, Edward and Alphonse.