Coping With Sudden Loss in Medical School
Published on Oct 12, 2020. Updated on Aug 26, 2022.
Adjusting to the rigors of medical school is a challenging process. Imagine having to face one of the most difficult hurdles of your life during that adjustment: the sudden loss of a parent. Today on the Osmosis blog, Lois Sharpe, a medical student, shares how she coped with the sudden loss of her father last year.
The journey through medical school is a challenging yet rewarding process that requires one to make adjustments, even when facing tragedy. Having a strong support system is crucial to face those challenges successfully, whether that system includes close friends, family, or classmates.
Last year, when I suddenly lost my dad, I relied on my support system to sustain me as I processed his death. With that support—and, most importantly, with time—I was able to finish the school year while also allowing myself space to grieve. Given the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of you may have already lost loved ones and may need advice with coping. Here is my story on how I dealt with a major loss in the middle of medical school.
Sharing my Medical School Journey with Dad
In the weeks leading up to my first mock practical exam, I spoke regularly with my dad about my medical school journey thus far. He loved hearing me talk about all things medical school, in part because he had spent the last ten years as a caregiver for his father—my chronically ill grandfather who lived in my dad’s hometown in Florida. Because of this experience, my dad knew all sorts of medical lingo and would say, “Oh, so that's why that happens!” when I explained something that I just learned in class.
These conversations grounded me, helping me see how my medical school learnings would benefit all those around me, including the ones that I loved most.
On an ordinary Friday night, we had another one of those conversations that I cherished. I shared with my dad how I’d been preparing for a mock practical exam, which I’d take that next morning, and how excited and nervous I was to regurgitate all the anatomical information that I’d been absorbing over the last six weeks. When we said goodnight, I had no idea what the next twenty-four hours would hold.
Mock Practical Day: More Than a Practice Test
The day of the mock practical didn’t start off too well: I overslept my alarm and had to hustle to start my 45-minute long commute. I arrived late to the test, but calmed down and caught my breath soon after as I was able to catch up with the group and finish the exam on time.
Despite facing some fatigue after the mock practical wrapped up, and despite it being a clear and temperate Saturday afternoon, I decided to stay on campus and study in the library to prepare for the upcoming written exam that was a few days away. A few hours into studying, I started getting texts from my aunt and cousins. The messages were vague: “I’m always here if you need me, Lois. Love you!” I had a feeling something was up, so I called my dad to see what was going on. No answer. I didn’t think it was anything unusual, as Dad often worked out at the gym on Saturdays and wouldn’t answer his phone until he returned home.
Then, I received a call, which appeared on my phone as being from a major Florida hospital. I picked up, confused, and said “Hello?” It was the hospital’s chaplain. He knew my name and was asking for my mom and my aunt’s phone number.
Even more confused now, I called Dad again to get some clarification. No answer again. Finally, I ended up calling Mom and asked her what was going on. She said, “Lois, you should come home. There’s something I need to tell you.” At that point, something in my gut told me that something bad had happened. I thought to myself: did Dad get into a car accident? Or worse… did he die? The latter idea felt like a punch in the stomach, and it took every fiber of my being to not speed down the interstate as I drove home.
When I finally got home, Mom told me to put my things down and come over to her. “Lois, I’m so sorry, but your dad passed away this morning.” No one wanted to tell me until I was safe at home. No one knew what had happened… only that he was fine the day before, which I knew from our conversation the day before, and that he didn’t wake up the next day.
The First Few Weeks: How to Cope
Initially, coping with my father’s sudden death was difficult, to say the least. It’s difficult losing a parent alone, but losing one unexpectedly, and in the middle of medical school, was jarring. However, after a pep talk from my mom, I was determined to not let this interfere with my education— Dad was so proud of me for working towards my dream of becoming a physician. There was no way I was going to let him, Mom, or any other member of my family down.
I had coped with death during school before (a high school friend died from cancer). So, I knew not to stay silent or isolate myself. Not long after the initial shock of losing my dad started to dissipate, I reached out to my school’s counseling office and professors. They responded with compassion and understanding, allowing me to postpone the written exam until the end of the block. My professors also provided additional assistance, such as offering one-on-one review sessions and regular check-ins.
Indeed, the most important thing to have during the grief process is people.
Do not let yourself be alone. Use every resource at your disposal. My incredible classmates, school counselors, faculty, other family members, lifelong family church friends, and most of all, my mom, formed an incredible support system. Ask your classmates for help with schoolwork whenever you get back to it, and build healthy friendships so that you won’t be alone. I
Know that there will be ups and downs over the next several months where you’ll be fine one minute, then something will randomly remind you of your lost loved one and you won’t be fine. Know that this is a completely normal part of the grief process and that it’s OK to feel those ups and downs. Being in medical school requires resilience, but don’t feel inclined to think of yourself as invincible. We’re all human.
Do recognize that it’s also important to maintain a focus on your life, not allowing yourself to become too down emotionally. This is where those healthy friendships come in handy.
To help with studying, find ways that you can relate the content to something that you’re very interested in. Not only will that help with learning, but it will also help keep your mind on your goals. Journaling, meditation, and if you’re religious, reading religious texts and prayer also help.
Find aspects of your life that make you happy. Do you enjoy playing music? Writing? Hiking? Find a hobby that you enjoy that will allow you to focus on something positive so that you don’t get too down. Take a few minutes each day to remind yourself that you have a purpose on this Earth.
Your Most Helpful Resource: Time
One of the most important pieces of advice I received was from my mom and one of the school counselors: “Grief from the death of a parent never really goes away… it changes over time, but it does get better.” A year later, I can say that this is absolutely true. You will always miss your lost loved one. However, as time passes, your ability to look back at the memories with your loved one with a smile increases. When I look at my Dad’s old military awards or pictures of me and him now, I smile and laugh.
Time will always be on your side when it comes to healing from grief.
About Lois Sharpe
Lois Sharpe is an MD2 at Morehouse School of Medicine. She’s originally from Fayetteville, Georgia. When she’s not studying, she enjoys nature, hiking, cooking/baking, performing music, Netflix, and re-watching her favorite show Avatar: The Last Airbender and the sequel, The Legend of Korra. An interesting fact about Lois: she was a “micropreemie”, born at 24 weeks, weighing 1 lb 3 oz. Lois is interested in specializing in pediatrics.
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