Updated: Jul 3, 2021
In 2018 I received the immense honor of being selected to speak at the 2018 doctoral convocation. For weeks I toiled over what I would say?! I decided to tell the story only I knew how to tell which was my experience of earning a doctorate while grieving the impending loss of my mom and the lessons I learned.
Check out a few clips from the day and the full transcript of my speech.
“To grieve the loss or the losing of someone while they are still here is a humbling experience. It breaks you open in the way that only profound loss can and expands your capacity to feel deeply.”
"Good morning! I’d like to start by simply saying congratulations to my fellow graduating doctoral students! We made it! We’re here!
I’d like to also extend a profound sense of gratitude on behalf of all
of us to those we call family, friends, advisors, cheerleaders, make-shift therapists, actual therapists and all the members of our emotional and moral support teams we’ve called on throughout this journey. As the adage goes, it takes a village, and the struggle to get here was real.
I don’t know about you but there were certainly times when this day felt like.... a delusion of
grandeur.... a distant dream of sorts. And then not to mention contending with all the
questions/comments like, “a PhD huh, you must really love school” or “does it really take 6 years to answer 1 question”, or just the plain suspicion about what we do here. This one time my sister actually questioned whether the “lab” I often told her I was going to actually existed at all. She goes, “What is this “lab” you speak of?
But today we get to put to bed all the doubts about whether this day would come, the anxieties about our data, and the nagging angst about whether we are working too hard or hard enough. It was enough. It was more than enough. And we are here today as evidence of that. But let us not be deluded by our own self efficacy, because none of us get very far in life without the support, the encouragement, love and at times, patience from others. And so each and every single person in this room, graduates and friends alike, should feel incredibly proud today. I’d like you all to give yourselves a round of applause.
It is an honor to be able to speak to you all today. As a classic introvert, who has developed an art of finding reasons to leave social gatherings early, it’s a bit out of character for me to be up here offering remarks. And furthermore, what do I even say to a room of brilliant minds, budding academics and world-renowned scientists and scholars that you have not thought about yourselves; that you have not pontificated and pondered for years in ways much deeper than I could explore in 5 minutes. So, what I figured I’d do is to simply share my own experience along this journey and a few lessons, 5 in total, that I’ve racked up along the way.
“The juggling of grief, hope and optimistic realism is a hard act and yet still not harder than what I imagined my mother had to endure when she had her stroke.”
LESSON 1: GET UP! I began my doctoral program in September 2012 and 8 weeks later my mother had a massive left-brain stroke. It left her unable to move and unable to speak. I was 23. She was 56 and the world stopped. Assisted by machines to breathe and paralyzed down her right side, she was trapped in this body that no longer was in service to her. It was painful to watch. And I learned the devastation that is heartache, the very real experience of being heart broken. I’ve never known such sadness, and although I along with my sisters would regularly visit her in the hospital and later in the nursing home, somehow I missed her the most when I was right beside her. To grieve the loss or the losing of someone while they are still here is a humbling experience. It breaks you open in the way that only profound loss can and expands your capacity to feel deeply. The juggling of grief, hope and optimistic realism is a hard act and yet still not harder than what I imagined my mother had to endure
when she had her stroke.
For almost 6 years she fought everyday to just get up. To be present. To be alive. She passed last summer but I like to think she stuck around long enough to see me through to the end. Like many moms she was my greatest coach and loudest cheerleader. And while she wasn’t able to see this day, what she has modeled for me through her health and illness is to keep pushing. RESILIENCE. GRIT. If you can, if you are privileged enough to do so, get up and get on with it! Get on with living.
LESSON 2: Whoever said it gets easier lied. Pain does not get easier. At first pain lives with you, it moves in, unannounced and uninvited, aggressively and arrogantly. And then after some time it periodically visits, it checks in, but still uninvited, unannounced and at times just as aggressively. But what I have learned is that when pain visits, let him in, see what he needs and then graciously lead him on his way. Because pain for me has been a reminder to take stock of home, to housekeep wherever is necessary and/or to simply rest.
LESSON 3: On light and joy.
FIND JOY even in times or spaces where it makes no sense for joy to grow. Find it. And if it’s not there, grow it. Plant the seeds, water it and grow your own. And that’s not happiness because we all know that’s ephemeral, it’s fleeting. Its peace of mind, its compassion for self and compassion for others.
Oprah Winfrey (a friend in my head) had a guest on her show years ago, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist who also suffered a left-brain stroke, and because she was only able to sense presence, she asked that those around her “be responsible for the energy they let in.” And so, I say to you all the same, be responsible for the energy that you let into your lives and the energy you bring to others. We all have the power to serve as light or darkness in others’ lives. And so, I encourage you to choose light. When people are unkind and uncompassionate which you will most certainly encounter, meet them with careful compassion anyway. Choose light.
LESSON 4: Find those who are rooting for you, who see your light and potential. Find your tribe as they say. And they may not be those who look like you or were born in your town, but it’s those who see you and are rooting for you. And when you encounter those who do not see your worth or potential, move on and find those who do. Because degree or no degree, we are all longing to be seen, to be heard and acknowledged for what we bring to the world. Surround yourself with people who do this for you. Surround yourself with people who see you.
LESSON 5: You are enough. As cliché and Oprah-ish as it sounds, everything you need you already have. I promise you this is the truth. When life strips you down to the core of who you are, when you are humbled beyond belief, when you are reduced to the scraps of who you thought you were... you are still filled with everything you need to be loved and give love. And I promise you that will always be enough to keep going.
So, I’d like to close with thanking you all for allowing me to share myself with you today and my hard-earned lessons and reflections of the last few years. And as my mom would say to us, onward and upward.