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Coping With Family Illness From a Distance

When events are beyond your control.


June 9, 2013

idovermani flickrKatie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at kdshives.com and on Twitter @KDShives

Sometimes events happen that are completely unexpected and out of our control, and are capable of disrupting our lives and rapidly shifting our priorities.

A few weeks ago my step-father was diagnosed with cancer. The diagnosis was very sudden and frightening, and I was lucky enough to be able to fly home for a short period of time to be supportive of him and my mother during the difficult diagnosis period. However, I couldn’t stay forever and had to return to my own life as a graduate student even though it was extremely difficult to leave my family in that situation.

The desire to go and be home with family isn't uncommon, but as grad students, we often have limitations on what we can actually do to help or how long we can stay.

What do you do when you can’t go home? How can you support your loved ones while still maintaining your own life and career? How do you effectively cope with a serious illness in your family from a distance? These are highly personal questions that don’t have easy, one-size-fits-all solutions, but I’ve learned a few things during this process that might help others in similar situations.

Prioritize: I admit that I’m normally a bit obsessive about my work (what PhD student isn’t?) but as soon as I got the call about the diagnosis I was booking a plane ticket and handing off my cells to labmates to freeze down in my absence. Projects were put on hold and I completely missed my last column deadline for this site (sorry guys!).

Despite falling behind, having to start projects over, and putting in extra hours on the weekends to catch up since I've been back, it has been worth it. In the face of a serious illness in the family, it was easy to see that I could repeat experiments but I might not have the opportunity to be there for my family if things got suddenly worse. I could only be back home for a week, but it mattered so much that I could do even that. Taking the time to be with my family in person, even for a short time, became a priority and was treated as such.  When faced with these kinds of situations don't be afraid to honor your priorities as you see them and apply the energy to actualize them.

Now that I’m back in Colorado and my family is still in Washington State, I’ve had to figure out how to be supportive from a distance, which brings me to the next point:

Remain available to family: Whether it’s the phone, Skype, instant messenger, or whatever form of communication you prefer; sometimes the simple act of being there to talk and listen to loved ones can make a huge difference when you can’t be there in person. Knowing that others are thinking and caring about them during difficult times does help people, so don't hesitate to reach out to family and communicate.

Recognize which limitations are real and which are self-imposed: When it comes to balancing our priorities, many of us make decisions by using self-imposed limitations. It wasn’t until I was booking a ticket that I started to panic and think that I couldn’t leave campus because of my research projects, which in hindsight sounds absurd. I couldn’t leave because I thought I had to do everything myself and stick to the schedule I set for my own projects. Once I realized that it was a self-imposed limitation and not one due to external sources (my PI was fine with my decision to leave for a week after I explained the situation and set up a plan for how I'd start back up, which is yet another reason it is so important to find a good mentor) it became clear that a lot of limitations I place on myself relating to balancing family support and my professional life are internal, not external. Don't be afraid to challenge your normal thinking in order to find ways to make things work for you.

Compartmentalize: When you mind is far from school and work it can be very difficult to maintain your normal routine. In these situations don’t undervalue the ability to compartmentalize your thoughts so that what is bothering you doesn't drift into your full day. Even something as simple as agreeing not to dwell on problems during a certain activity, in a specific place, or during a particular time can help you retain clarity and not get fully swept under the stress of the situation. Just be sure that you do give yourself some designated time when you can really devote energy to thinking about the issue, because ignoring the situation can end up being just as bad as being over preoccupied by it.

Hopefully, this advice will help other students struggling with family illness from a distance. One thing that I’ve observed as a graduate student is that many of us are transplants from all around the country; our families live hundreds of miles away and there will be moments when it’s hard to be far away from those that you care about. If this happens, remember that you are not alone and that even if you can't go back in person you can still be there for those you love while maintaining your own life.

Do you have any advice for coping with family issues from a distance? Let us know in the comments below.

[Image by flickr user idovermani and used under a creative commons license]


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