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What to do when tragedy strikes during law school

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Tijuana Barnes
Tijuana Barnes holds a photo of her sister, Danielle Williams.

On Sept. 14, 2017 at 6 a.m., my sister Marquita called me twice. I was in Chicago for the first day of the ABA Section Officers Conference, and I did not want to get out of bed to answer her calls. The phone rang again, but this time it was my other sister, Mariah. I have four sisters and I was wondering why two of them were calling me back to back at six o’clock in the morning. I finally answered the phone.

“Mommy,” Mariah said. I wondered why she was saying “mommy.” I’m in law school and I’m at a conference, I do not have time for phone tag.

“Tia,” my mother said because she was on the line with my sister. My mind immediately went to my grandfather and my father, who had both been sick during the previous summer. Both of them were near death at one point in recent months. “Mommy, is it granddaddy? Is granddaddy okay?” I asked about him first because I am his caregiver. “Yes, granddaddy is okay,” she said in a sad tone. Why is she so sad if he’s okay? “Is something wrong with my father?” I said, confused and trying to move this conversation along because it was time for me to get ready for opening plenary. I needed to look sharp for my first impression with the leaders of the American Bar Association. I was just elected Vice Chair of the Law Student Division, and I needed to deliver on several promises.

Tijuana Barnes“No, Tia. It’s Danielle. It’s your sister, Danielle. Someone shot her twice last night,” my mother said as my sister cried on the line.

How is any of this even possible? Life was getting better for me. I started to handle the anxieties of law school expectations and post-graduation options. I ran for a national position, and my daughter is doing great in school. How can I grieve the death of my sister and complete this degree in May? I wanted everything to stop. “Please no phone calls, no deadlines, no expectations.” I wanted to lie in my bed and just debate whether I still wanted to be a lawyer at all.

A mother of three children laid in the street with bullets in her body at the exact same time I was boarding a plane to attend a leadership conference. If that doesn’t sound frightening enough, the fact that I got in my suit and shook hands at opening plenary scares me even more. I knew from the start that I wasn’t dealing with the death of my sister properly. All I wanted to do was “law school”!

It’s been a few weeks since all of this happened and I finally had to realize and prioritize some things.

  1. You have every right to grieve the loss of someone in law school and make it your priority. Law school will be there. This sounds crazy because it’s against the culture of law school. However, several law schools are taking mental health seriously, and there is a growing recognition that mental health problems are a pervasive issue among practicing attorneys..
  1. There are resources for you in your area to help you through life’s struggles during law school. Here’s a link to the Lawyer’s Assistance Programs (LAP). Please use their services, if necessary.
  1. Prioritize what’s important and unload any unnecessary obligations. I started an internship one month before my sister’s death. It took me a month after her death to realize that I could unload that off my shoulders to give myself time to grieve and still manage other obligations. Leaving my internship was difficult because I wanted to work for this particular organization since the first day of law school, but it was the right decision for my mental health.

Some of us are dealing with situations that may be affecting our studies. Please seek help. We can get our degrees, perfect careers, and several other opportunities; but what does any of that mean if you’re not in the right state of mind to enjoy it? Choose you and seek help if you need it. I am choosing me, because before I can help anyone else, I must help myself.

Have you experienced a tragedy during your time as a law student? How did it affect you? How did you address it? Before the Bar and Student Lawyer magazine would like to share your stories to help other law students. Send your stories and information to studentlawyer@americanba….

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