Imagine being a PhD student whose life mostly revolves around the lab until you are hit by the worst news of your life. You have just lost one or both of your parents and bereavement sets in. You still cannot really believe it, spend your nights crying, and find yourself grappling with a whole pile of admin you did not even know existed. And in all that, you are also supposed to care about what the function of protein X is in a liverwort.

I lost my dad to pancreatic cancer when I was 24. I had just started my PhD program. The day before I was talking about cool papers with my rotation supervisor and the next day I was emailing her to say I was no longer sure I could join her lab as a PhD student. I found myself needing to move back home to take care of my terminally ill father. I was a mess, my family was a mess, and my academic career looked in no better prospects.

What Do You Do?

Is there a protocol to follow? You guessed it, there is none. I am not a shrink, so you will not find mental health advice here. Instead, I want to help you with the practicalities of facing both your PhD and your pain.

You Can Grieve and Still Work on Your PhD

You CAN both get a degree from a high profile university, and go through the grieving process. Many academics (from PIs to undergrads) might tell you that you must make a choice between career and family and that your new responsibilities, together with your bereavement, will only get in the way. Ignore them. There are a number of brilliant minds who are living proof of the opposite (have a look here for some examples). For the record, you will hear the same story about having a baby.

You Are Not Alone and Your University Can Help

There are mechanisms in place to help students with special circumstances. They can range from giving financial support to students who need to commute often, to allowing you to intermit for months or even years. To find out more, visit your university’s website, ask someone at the counseling service, or simply talk to your supervisor.

Use Those Resources

Don’t play stoic. Going back to work the day after the funeral because ‘you must be strong’ (you’ll hear those words a lot, I’m afraid) is counterproductive for both yourself and your research. Give yourself the time you need. Come to terms with the fact that you might need a week, a month, or a year. If you intermit, your PhD is frozen, and every deadline changes accordingly. Sure, this means a whole lot of things might change in the meantime, including your project (in fact, this is very likely to happen as your field moves forward while you are away).

Lost Interest – Do Not Worry

This is only temporary and it is a physiological response to the enormous amount of stress you are going through. You will become engaged with your research again as you begin to process the initial trauma (provided you follow point 3 above). Equally, push through the guilt you might feel when you start enjoying your work again. Renewed interest in your research does not mean you are forgetting your parent, but simply that you are entering a healthier phase of grief.

You Have Control Over Who Knows

You choose if, when, and whom to tell. Your supervisor and the staff processing any related paperwork will know, but you should feel under no pressure to tell anyone else if you feel uncomfortable. It might be easier for you to resume your academic life if everyone treats you as usual and not as if you were a fragile crystal vase (personally, I stopped telling people precisely because of that). Normality can be a powerful healer. On the other hand, do tell your colleagues if you feel that it would make your working environment better. You will have bad days, and this could create confusion or tension if they do not know why you are acting hostile.

Bereavement is the typical “the-only-way-out-is-through-it” situation. We all grieve differently and you may not have power over every aspect of your PhD . Ultimately though, remember you have some power over yourself.

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  1. Dear Guilia, I am reading this article for a second time now and had always hoped to reply. The month I had joined my PhD in an international setting faraway from home, I lost my only sibling, my sweet younger sister, in a car accident. It had been all of 26 days joining the lab, I was on cloud 9 with my scholarship and had big dreams. Then my world turned upside down. Severe sadness and depression set in. However, thanks to the support of my Professor and my determination to reach the goal, I did finish my doctorate with decent publications. It was hard, and there were people who judged me. I saw the shift myself, from being a straight “A” student to being average, losing interest in life, as you mentioned in your article. I was frustrated. BUT, as long as we DO NOT GIVE UP in the face of tragedies; WE WILL CONQUER. Much love to you! Best regards.

  2. Thank you for this! My graduate school’s dean told me a whole bunch of nonsense when I went to his office to tell him that in 4 months I had lost my brother to an acute disease, my cousin to suicide-by-police, and my best friend’s mom to a home invasion by two criminals on a cross-country lam. All these things were happening amidst multiple surgeries to fix a broken ankle. I was a HOT MESS. I thought I was managing it, but the depression and dark thoughts set in, and I knew I had to tell someone. I spoke to the dean and his response: “They’re all dead, there’s nothing you can do about it. You have to find the strength and courage to move on. Because if you don’t, you’ll fall behind in your graduate work.” Verbatim. I’ll never forget those words. Fortunately for me, I had an amazing support system in my friends and family. I’m so glad you wrote this. I hope the students currently going through difficult times finds this article helpful. Cheers.

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