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 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. One of these events is a serious illness in the family. When this happens a natural desire is to go and be home and be with family, but as grad students, we often have limitations on what we can actually do to help or how long we can stay in those situations.

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: Don’t be afraid to make you family a priority in these situations. If someone close to you is seriously ill and you need to leave, most people (and PIs are people!) should be understanding of you having to go. Just take the time to keep your PI in the loop as to how long you need to be gone. It also helps to set up a plan on how you will catch up when you return if you will be gone for more than a few days.

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.  Do you really need to do X, Y, and Z in the exact timeline you have planned? Can you leave for a few days to be home without the lab exploding? Probably. Don’t be afraid to challenge your normal thinking in order to find ways to make things work for you, even if it means putting in some extra time to catch up on projects later.

Compartmentalize: When your 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 is that many graduate students 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 by clicking here.

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


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