On Graduate School and Loss

by Letisha Engracia Cardoso Brown

Graduate school. Those two words were a tough road for me. I am a young black woman, first-generation PhD, seven months post-graduation. I wrote and defended my dissertation, yet this piece feels infinitely more difficult to write. It’s been a year since we lost you and committing that to paper hurts. I only hope that by sharing my own experience, it reaches someone and encourages them.

I don’t know exactly how to begin, so I guess it’s best to go to the very start. One of my earliest and most vivid memories of you is your first birthday. You were sitting in your high chair, brown, big-cheeked, and smiling at the small crowd and the sugary cake sitting before you. I’d watched you grow all those months before, curious, bright, and the most beautiful baby! The cake was like a puzzle you needed to figure out. You plunged your hands inside and brought it to your cute little face. Perhaps it was the shock of so much sugar at once, but immediately you recoiled; then, like a child, you attempted to taste it again. Baby’s first cake. That’s how I think of you now. That’s how I will always remember you. Curious, precocious, beautiful, bright. That’s who you were. And as I sit to write this now, it’s who I wish you still were. But you’re gone now. To where? I can contemplate and imagine, but I won’t know for certain until I leave this plane myself someday. But wherever you are, I write this for you, little cousin (little sister). I’ll carry you always.

Being in graduate school is a struggle, one that is hard to navigate even in the best of circumstances I presume. As I sit and write this, one year removed from the initial trauma, I still struggle to find the words to describe all I went through. However, I recognize the importance of talking about my experience, not just for myself, but for others as well. So, being vulnerable and honest, here I go:

It was January of what turned out to be the final year of my graduate study. I was in the midst of waiting to hear back from positions I applied for and dreading rejections, as well as the possibility of offers, as those would come with interviews and job talks—both of which terrified me to no end. It was just a few days after my 31st birthday when my phone rang, a call from your dad. There was nothing unusual about that. Your dad was (is) like a second father to me, so I answered hoping maybe for a second birthday surprise. But it wasn’t. Instead, he asked if I was sitting down, told me to sit down, and immediately I felt my heart stop. Rarely does anything good come after someone asks if you’re sitting down, so I’ve learned in my experiences. Unfortunately, I was right. Your dad called to tell me you were gone, that you had hung yourself, that you had died. An instant after the words left his mouth I went numb. I was devastated, disbelieving, heartbroken. You were thirteen years old. Exactly what it was that caused you to leave us as you did remains unclear to me, but whatever it was removed a light from my heart, a light from this earth.

That you could’ve taken your own life is still unfathomable to me, but perhaps it is not my place to understand. Nevertheless, I realize that there is no easy way to lose someone, a child no less, of that I am sure. But losing someone to suicide must be among the most painful. You weren’t my child to lose, you were my cousin, my little sister, but still my love, and I lost you. I lost you at one of the most difficult points in my adult life, and even today, a little after a year later, I am not sure how I am standing.

Writing a dissertation is not an easy feat, at least it wasn’t for me; yet, somehow in the wake of losing you, I somehow had to manage to put words to paper while dealing with the meaning of losing you. Advisors expected chapters and job applications expected responses. Yet I could barely breathe. All I could think about was the you in that beautiful dress, looking as if you were asleep within the coffin. Looking like yourself, but not at the same time.

How could I think about my next steps, knowing that you had taken the last of yours? How could I write, apply, or try, knowing that you’d never have the chance?

So I didn’t. For days I did nothing but cry. Remembering your face, your smile, your laugh. Days went by and the darkness around me grew. I was lost. Deeply and utterly lost. It took someone else to pull me out of the hole I had fallen into, one shrouded in pain, hurt, darkness. But her hand held mine, pulled me back to myself, back to happier memories of you. The you who supported me, the you that looked up to me, made me see things in myself that I may have otherwise missed. So slowly, but surely, I picked up a pen again. Put pen to paper and wrote. I dedicated my dissertation to you, the light in my darkness. My little Elira.

There is no easy way to write a dissertation through grief. The only advice that I can give, the only words that I can say, is that it doesn’t happen alone. Rely on your village, your person (or people) to help guide you through. Remember yourself and what you came to do. Pick up a pen, open a laptop, and let the words flow (even if they don’t make sense). I did. Eventually I found my way in words, using my writing as a way to remember you, as a way to move forward. It wasn’t a smooth process. It was rocky, marred with sleepless days and nights, tears, rewrites, curses, a trip to the hospital for insomnia driven psychosis, and feelings of hopelessness. But I wrote. I went to dissertation boot camp and I wrote. I went to write in sessions with my best friend and I wrote. I punched pillows, and cried for hours, but I wrote.

It was painful. Moving forward. Breathing. It hurt. It still hurts.

But with the help of my village I finished my dissertation, defended it and graduated in July 2018.


30412161_10105763080272873_6484055218454528000_nLetisha Engracia Cardoso Brown is a Presidential Pathways Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech University. Her research focuses on social relationships and food practices, as well as media representations of black female athletes. Her work can be found in the South African Review of Sociology and the Palgrave Handbook of Feminism and Sport, Leisure and Physical Education, as well as the online publication The Shadow League.

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