“The most meaningful thing someone said to me after my father’s death was the following: ‘be kind to yourself. This phrase, although simple, is truly powerful. You may be angry, depressed, tired, happy, manic, etc. This is all okay. Allow yourself to feel. Do not be hard on yourself…There is no timeline for loss.’”
I received that email early the morning after I had learned that my father had passed away in the fall of my 1L year. It was from a 3L who I barely knew. And yet rereading the email today, I realize that not only was he right about the whirlwind of emotions that comes after loss, but how badly I needed to receive the message when I did.
It is one of those things that is never talked about, and yet when I brought it up to friends, even professors who I barely knew at the law school, I always received that reassuring, comforting nod: I’ve been there too, and I know what you’re going through.
That is why I wanted to write about my experiences coping with grief. Death is one of those things that unites us all. Losing a loved one, whether unexpected or not, hurts. And yet, until the pandemic, for many it was rarely talked about, especially for people my age who had yet to lose someone close in this early stage of life.
During the past two years, I have experienced both forms of death: unexpected and expected. Nonetheless, it has taken me all of this time to write about my experiences. I originally wanted to write about coping with grief during the height of the pandemic—a time in which many people have been suffering. If there can be a silver lining to the past year and a half, it has been how discussions about grief have been brought to the forefront of our personal lives as we have comforted each other in our time of need. Sadly, I was not able to get myself to put pen to paper until now, ongoing proof that my grief persists. (To this point, my family still mourns on the same day every month.) In fact, because none of my losses were Covid related, I think my story shows the necessity of facilitating this discussion outside the time of a global pandemic. For those who needed this message earlier, I apologize.
As a starry-eyed 1L, my law school experience was far from ideal. I came into school having seen my father deal with the loss of his mother just a few weeks prior. Soon after, my law school roommate never showed up, and I dealt with loneliness for the first time in my life coming back to an empty, furniture-less apartment my first few weeks of school. Even as I started to acclimate, law school had already taken a different kind of tone, a far more serious one. Gone were the small classroom sizes, cold calls intimidated the heck out of me, and I did not know a soul on campus. I had expected graduate school to be a step up from college, but I had not expected life itself to present to me the challenges it had. Like many before me, as 1L took off, I found myself sincerely doubting whether I had made the right choice for this stage of my life.
Fortunately, I made some friends along the way, friends I had not realized would prove so crucial to my well-being over the next few months. While law school feels like an all-or-nothing affair 1L year, it helps knowing that you have a community to lean on, to celebrate your successes, and to be there during difficult times. And so, when my father peacefully passed away a few weeks before finals that fall, whether I knew it or not, I already had some of the tools set in place to deal with the greatest adversity I had experienced thus far in my life.
My father’s death also unexpectedly put law school in perspective for me. It gave me permission to prioritize life over school, something that is quite difficult to do during 1L year. As I returned to campus, I made some goals for the rest of the year. I told myself regardless of how I did, whatever grades I got, none of it really mattered anymore. I’d be a lawyer at the end of my three years regardless of whatever GPA or job I got. The motto became “make it to the end of the week,” which turned into “make it to Thanksgiving,” and then “make it to winter break.”
Perhaps the hardest part early on was opening myself up to others. I am very much the internal griever; I prefer to endure my pain alone in a sort of self-imposed struggle. But my resolve to suffer alone broke as I surprised myself with sporadic tears in class, office hours, in the library, even in the cafeteria. Most of the time, it went unnoticed, but when it was, some of the responses I got were really incredible. Professors were open about dealing with their own experiences losing close family members and friends. Some of them really went above and beyond in describing their own stories and helping me come to terms with my loss. One professor talked about losing his own father, which coincided with the birth of a child. Another professor took time off from her own family to meet my mom during the holidays. Another professor helped initiate my family’s probate process. (My dad died intestate). People within the administration counseled me about their own grief and put me in touch with someone who I talked to for the next few months. Within my section, I got the best outlines from classmates who had been studying for weeks, despite knowing I would be graded on the same curve and had not studied one bit. In addition, my classmates put together a lovely array of gift cards that I have still not finished spending to this day.
Worrying about my own family back home was another element of stress that I severely underestimated during my struggles. If I felt this way, how did my mom and younger brother feel like back at home? Grieving at home was one element that I did not fully comprehend until the pandemic began. It was one of the main reasons I stayed at home my entire 2L year. For the two months of my 1L in-person spring, I had tried to block out my pain to get through the semester. I did my best not to bring it up with friends, and I remember spending longer nights in the library to lessen the free time I had at my apartment to let it sink in. When we got the announcement that the rest of the semester would be remote, I remember being silently relieved at what it meant. I could go home and fully embrace my grief with my family.
Being home just felt different. To be honest, it felt eerily quiet. I don’t think anyone fully realizes the role someone plays in their lives until they are no longer there. Predictably, the holidays and birthdays—times when the family normally comes together—were the most difficult parts. These times of celebration are always bittersweet now. In addition, I began to experience many of those emotions detailed to me in that email. Aside from just being flat-out sad, and surprisingly happy at other times. I was particularly tired. I was tired of feeling anguish in the middle of my case readings every night, tired of seeing my mom and brother going through their own stages of grief. My mom in particular had evoked the work-your-way-out-of-it mentality. I could tell she was exhausted juggling work and taking care of my younger brother who has special needs. A family friend expressed concern when she saw her for the first time since the funeral. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a choice when I wasn’t home. As I came to learn pretty quickly, everyone else’s lives move on even while yours has come crashing down. Life goes on.
Meanwhile, I unexpectedly experienced gratitude and happiness during this period as well. I was grateful for the quality of life my dad had been able to provide my family as a first generation American. I was relieved because we had made it through the initial shock of loss. I was joyful because I had started to achieve some of my long-term goals that I had discussed with him before he had left us, among them being able to provide for my family. In addition, I learned that my dad had acknowledged to my mom that he was proud of how far I had gotten when he dropped me off my 1L year. Considering his hatred of lawyers, this meant the world to me–he had given me his blessing. Of course, all of these feelings were accompanied by a bittersweet tang. I remember accepting my job offer to a tearful hug from my mom this past summer. My brother couldn’t exactly comprehend why we were crying upon hearing good news, but he knew it had to do with missing dad.
To sum up, my 2L year was an extremely formative time. It was the most time I had spent with my family since high school and I healed. I got to properly grieve, appreciate the life that my dad had been able to offer me in my twenty-two years, and recalibrate some of my goals to realign with being closer to home. I felt rejuvenated and with a renewed sense of purpose coming back to school this fall. It is often said that death either pushes people away or brings them together. In my case, I quickly realized I needed to be close to home following law school. Admittedly at times, this proposition was frustrating. Over the pandemic, I was thrust back into being a part of an immigrant family, expected to put family first before other commitments, including school. I grew to embrace many of these roles, in particular driving my brother to school in the mornings or going grocery shopping or picking up takeout on weeknights. Others, like paying monthly insurance bills or washing the driveway, were not as pleasant. I’ll eventually take over these roles when I move back home after graduating.
As for this year, returning to campus has felt like a homecoming for me. Like many other 3L’s, this year has had a surreal feeling to it; reconnecting with friends and professors was amazing after all this time away. Nonetheless, I am still cognizant of my family at home, and know that unfortunately life hasn’t changed for my mom. Her teary embrace of me after fall break makes me all the more aware of the privilege I have to be back. I’ll try to make the most of it. While my grief is ongoing, there has been a certain level of acceptance I have achieved in the last few months that I hope I can sustain going forward.
Finally, law school wise, things worked out. I didn’t fail my first semester. I got the internship I wanted that summer, even with unremarkable grades. Indeed, I eventually stumbled into some of the traditional measures of what constitutes law school “success.” Looking back on it now, while I am pleased with what I have been able to achieve in school, I am most proud of my resilience those first few months. I came to law school to gain my voice and confidence in myself, and I gained it through these experiences.
None of this would have been possible without the unconditional support and love I received from friends, colleagues, and professors. I remember receiving a folded note from someone in my section the week I returned back to school my 1L fall. I slid the note into my book as I didn’t want to draw attention to it as I was chatting with some friends. Coincidentally I forgot about the note until I was reselling my 1L books and it slipped out. It was a personal note similar to this message, and how to cope with grief as life goes on. I never got to thank that individual. I truthfully don’t even know who wrote the note, as it was unsigned. While this may be a sort of public thank you, I know that person represents what I experienced at BC: people going the extra distance to help others out.
I often felt as if I was not able to contribute enough to this blog; writing a blog post from time to time, but not feeling as if I could adequately contribute something that could help someone when they needed it most. For that reason, I do hope that this post doesn’t fall upon deaf ears. The community that exists at BC has been one of the main reasons I didn’t transfer to a law school closer to home. It will be one of the reasons why I continue to encourage some of my younger friends who are contemplating going to law school to apply here.
Some things are more important than being a bright legal mind. This year’s past experiences have proven to me that being a good person in a loving community is one of them. Indeed, seeing how passionate some of my classmates are about changing the world in either the private or public sectors brings me much hope for when we get out of this difficult period. A community’s benefits are not felt when things are running smoothly, but when it feels like the world around you is collapsing. There is nothing much better in life than having a supportive one when you are going through a rough patch.
As we forge ahead into a post-pandemic world, let us not forget the ones who have lost someone, or are trying to find their way through a grieving time.
Izzy Ercan is a third-year student at BC Law. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image above: This picture was taken at my college graduation, a few months before my dad’s passing. My dad had learned that his mother had fallen ill the night before.