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A Personal Story of Dealing with Grief During Dental School

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This blog post has been really hard for me to compose.  Grief is an incredibly individualized and personal experience, so I don’t claim to have any answers, I just want to share my experience with others. Maybe my experience will resonate with you, maybe it won't, and that's ok. 

I started dental school in the fall of 2013, about 2 weeks after my dad received a diagnosis of end stage renal failure.  His diagnosis was devastating, and it was even more challenging to have to move four hours away and start dental school right after hearing that news.  I tried to visit home as much as I could, but dental school is demanding, as we all know, and I had to spend a lot of time studying and working on hand skills so I could meet expectations in my classes.  It was hard.  I spent a lot of time feeling inadequate as a student and even more awful as a daughter and sister because my attention was pulled in so many directions.  As I progressed in my classes, my dad became more ill…he almost died the summer I started my third year of dental school, and he did eventually pass away in 2016, a day before I was supposed to finish my last required crown of junior year. I had to take the call from my sister at school, and then I had to stay that extra day to finish that crown.  It was hard for me to start senior clinic, on a new floor of the dental school. I had to work with new faculty who maybe didn't know why I wasn't there for the first week of school, or why I "randomly" started crying during yearly exams when patients I hadn't seen for a little while asked me about my family or how my dad was doing.  With time it got easier, but sometimes it's still very difficult. It hasn't been a year yet.  The holidays were so different. Sometimes I go days without thinking about my loss, and other times it hits me like a ton of bricks. I think I get the most choked up when I think about graduation, and my acceptance to a residency program.  I can't share those things with my father, and it makes me sad...but it also makes me happy because I know he would be so proud.  Grief is such a weird thing, isn't it? 

To be honest, sometimes I’m amazed I managed to stay in school and stay focused enough to be on track to finishing on time with my class.  I think some of the things I can credit with helping me stay the course were my friends, a supportive administration, and counseling services at Augusta University.  I never tried to hide my struggle; I was open with my emotions and my perceived shortcomings as a student, even if it was only to a few friends, a trusted faculty member, or my counselor.  Having those outlets really helped me keep progressing, even if I sometimes didn’t make the best grades in the class.

I think the main point I want to get across is that there are resources to help you make it through whatever problems you are having. It doesn’t really matter what your personal struggle is, maybe it is similar to mine, or maybe it is different.  It could be grief, mental illness, addiction, health problems, abuse, finances, etc.  We make a lot of sacrifices to do what we do. Dental school is expensive, stressful, and takes a long time, all of those things plus other personal struggles can take a serious toll on a person.  Dentistry is a great profession; even though we have incredible responsibility and face a lot of pressure, we also have such an amazing network through organized dentistry. In the end, it's all about getting connected, you aren’t alone.