Growth Through Grief: Learning to Put the Oxygen Mask on Myself, Before Helping Others

Hi, my name is Danielle and I’m a workaholic. (Hi, Danielle.) Family, friends, and colleagues will likely laugh while reading because this statement is so obvious to them. And while, yes, I do dedicate an immense amount of time professionally, it’s because I’m so passionate about the work I do and the impact I hope to make in students’ lives. New ideas and projects excite me as I think about how they can help the school counseling profession and ultimately contribute to student success. However, beginning my first semester at Harvard was definitely a test of not just my academic and professional skills, but also my ability to balance my life personally.

 As you may know, during my first semester at Harvard my dad’s lung cancer spread significantly – first to his liver, detected in early October. The news was jarring, but at that time his oncologist talked about treatment and we were all hopeful. While I let my advisor know about the situation, it was more for precautionary reasons. Being on the other side of the country from California I called more frequently and sent cards regularly. I figured I would be home in early December to spend quality time with my dad at the end of the semester. And so I went back to studying.

 Two weeks later, as I was finishing up a paper, my dad called. “What are you doing?”, he asked. “Finishing up a paper that’s due in three hours. What are you doing?”, I replied. I was still looking at my laptop, pondering how to finish my conclusion when my dad let me know he was in the hospital because his cancer spread to his brain. Oh, and he had a minor stroke, which is how they found out. After I got off the phone with my dad I called my two brothers, but one was working and the other was busy with his two young kids so both conversations were brief. My partner was out of town at a work dinner, so I filled him in and feigned being okay, telling him to enjoy the night. I then walked back and forth in my one bedroom apartment, feeling worried but also knowing I needed to finish my paper. So, I stopped fidgeting and got to it.

 My family and I didn’t know what my dad’s new diagnosis meant and my dad remained positive and encouraged me to keep up my studies. But even though I was doing my best to stay focused, strong, and calm at school I didn’t realize how much I was falling apart on the inside. One day the sadness finally poured out. I came to class feeling tearful and when some of my peers noticed and asked how I was doing I started crying and pretty much couldn’t stop all day. Many of my classmates tried to give me outs – stepping out into the hall with me and telling me I could take a break for as long as I needed, getting me drinks of water, explaining the situation to the cohort when I broke down during a whole class personal check-in, buying me chocolate – and yet I remained at school all day. Looking back, I realized that I attributed leaving class to being weak. And weakness was the last thing I wanted to show, especially during my first semester at Harvard!

 That crying day, my intuition must have been on point because one of my brothers called letting me know they got the prognosis – my dad had two to three months to live. Still trying to be thoughtful and manage my schoolwork, I booked a flight for two weeks later, to span a long weekend. I can make it until then, I thought. I updated professors and while I felt slightly unhinged, I had a plan – I would be home in two weeks.

 What I didn’t expect was the outpouring of genuine support from my program, especially from the faculty. While I knew our professors cared about us, the level of love I felt was unprecedented. Between their full-fledged support and my dad being readmitted to the hospital I ended up flying home two days (rather than two weeks) later, not knowing when I would return.

My initial thought was to go home for a week, return to school for the week and a half before Thanksgiving, and then go home again. This seemed like a good plan – l wouldn’t miss many classes, nor the big group presentation coming up. Yet, once I got home I realized I was exactly where I belonged. The words of various professors also ran through my head: “You can make up your classes. You can’t make up time with your dad.” “The work will always be there.” “Take all the time you need.” Rather than feel guilty about being gone I embraced the time with my family.

I spent time with my dad during the day, and then went to dinner at my younger brother’s house at night, enjoying time with his wife and my adorable niece and nephew. I went grocery shopping with my mom, cleaned up around the house, and tried to get in a run. It became my new routine. During my time with my dad he would tell stories, we watched movies, and we even played Scrabble and poker. I brought him meals of sushi, tacos, chicken, or tamales since he was in a skilled nursing facility with less than desirable food. My brothers and I took my dad on a few outings, including to his favorite breakfast spot and to a local car show. I also showed my dad pictures, and then hung them all over the walls of his room.

Being home for three weeks gave me the peace and healing I needed to return to Harvard after Thanksgiving. I was able to get through that week and a half because, having spent so much time with my dad and family, I felt whole. I came back to campus for the last two weeks of class which included integrating my personal experiences of needing additional social-emotional support into my personal theory of impactful teaching and learning for PreK-12 education. In this presentation, I shared how the tier 2 and 3 supports I was given from the EdLD Program was similar to what students (and adults) at all levels need. The time I spent at home, taking care of my needs first, rather than worrying about my professional life, gave me the strength to finish the semester.  


After my last class I flew home to California. Hospice brought my dad home as well and I became his primary caregiver. Those nine days at home with my dad, before he passed away, are hard to describe – it was a time of heartache, love, intimacy, hurt, and so much more. Days and nights blended together as I resided on the couch, beside my dad’s hospital bed in the living room. Family and friends visited; my mom and I gave my dad medicine when an alarm rang; hospice checked in on us once a day; I changed my dad’s clothes and bed sheets; my younger brother stopped by after work with his kiddos; and I worked on completing my finals in the space between. I even slept on the couch so I could attend to anything my dad needed in the middle of the night, even after we got a baby monitor. It felt better to be close to him.

 Some of what I will remember of those last nine days is my dad’s positivity, even when he was hurting. I will remember us eating sushi together on the first night he was back at home, and how he insisted we get upgraded cable so he could watch car shows. And I will cherish the memory of his brother and cousin coming to visit, and my dad tearfully hugging them goodbye when they left.

I will also remember when my dad stopped being able to feed himself or even lift a cup up to his mouth. And when he then stopped wanting to eat or take medicine. I think it was his silent protest to his body not doing what he wanted it to. And shortly after, I remember hospice telling us my dad likely had 24 to 48 hours left to live. At that point the prognosis was somewhat obvious, but it still hurt to hear and is painful to think about today. I remember holding my dad’s hand, stroking his face, crying, hugging my mom and brothers…and while I felt my heart aching I also felt so lucky to be surrounded by my family’s shared understanding and love.  

 Another memory that stays with me is that I had one last school assignment to finish when we got the 24 to 48 hour news. Without thinking, I emailed my professor to let him know the circumstances and to say I would have to take an incomplete in the class. Although I have never had an incomplete in a class (nor many other things in life), I repeated the email message from a different professor in my head: “You can make up your classes. You can’t make up time with your dad.”  This reminder allowed me to put the hypothetical oxygen mask on myself first, just as flight attendants tell us to do – to take care of myself first, before I can adequately take care of others. Although self-care was somewhat easier being in school rather than having a full-time job, the experience of focusing on my own healing and being with my family reinforced the importance of this message for me. And the time I was able to spend with my dad and family, guilt free, was the best gift anyone could have given me. EVER.

I also have a newfound respect for and understanding of showing vulnerability. In the past, I have been comfortable sharing personally, but last semester I realized how much harder it is to be vulnerable in new situations. As I finally felt like I was getting into a groove at Harvard and gaining my confidence, my dad’s terminal illness hit me like a punch in the stomach. I didn’t fully trust myself sharing my personal circumstances, as I was worried about breaking down in front of classmates and professors I had just met. While I logically know that crying doesn’t make me less strong, I was concerned about how I would be perceived amongst a group of such strong leaders; I didn’t want to look weak. However, I also knew I needed help, and as I began sharing with select people – first my workplace lab team, and then cohort members with whom I was most comfortable – I realized this helped, rather than hurt me. The love and support I received was phenomenal, which gave me strength to tell my entire cohort and professors about my dad’s cancer. I was reminded to give myself grace, that I don’t have to be perfect (nor is that realistic), and it is okay to ask for help. I cried publically (multiple times), had to ask professors for extensions, and was unable to be at a final presentation with my team. And yet, I survived. I learned to give myself the same compassion I would give to others which makes me stronger, not weaker.

Because of my passion and drive, I know that taking care of myself will be a continual battle (that’s why the title says learning to put the mask on myself first, rather than learned!). However, the love and support given to me during my dad’s illness and passing taught me a monumental lesson of the importance of self-care. I started my second semester feeling at peace (or feeling as much at peace as is likely possible after a significant death), which helped me regain my footing and jump back into school with minimal setbacks, including finishing up my incomplete assignment. I am grateful to work with such amazingly supportive cohort members and professors, and to have wonderful family and friends. And while my heart still hurts as I miss my dad, the lessons he taught me both during his life and in his passing are in my heart. I would never change the time I was at home with my dad and family for anything, which validates the importance of self-care and is a lesson I will never forget.