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A time for class, a time for grief: Dealing with loss in law school

Elizabeth Schultz
Author Elizabeth Schultz with her father.

It was the first week of October 2016. I had just finished my first two months of law school and was finally starting to feel like I was getting the hang of things. One afternoon I was in the library, and I realized I hadn’t talked to my mom all day.

When I called my house earlier no one answered, which was odd because my father was always home due to medical conditions, so he almost always answered the phone unless he was asleep. I tried the home phone again, thinking it would be a better time as it was now late afternoon – still no answer. I tried my mom’s work and cell phone with again, no answer.

I brushed it off as poor timing again and went back to work. We have terrible cell service in the library but an hour and a half later, I saw a text pop up from my mom that said, “Hi honey, are you busy right now?”

I immediately knew something was wrong, so I stepped outside to make the call. It sounds cliché, and that’s because it was, but it was a cloudy day in Florida, and a late summer shower had just started as the wind was picking up.

My mom answered after the first ring, and in the calmest voice explained to me that on this morning, my father didn’t wake up. She came out in the living-room to find him peacefully asleep on his chair with our dog asleep in his lap, but my mom couldn’t wake him up. Soon after, an ambulance arrived, and my father was taken to the ICU.

Nothing prepares you for this moment, I had lived most of my life knowing my father was sick and knowing this would happen. But nothing prepares you to take that call in the middle of a CivPro study group at the library.

I realized I needed to go home. But how? I only lived an hour away, but I had an important Contracts class early the next morning. There was this inner conflict of knowing it was okay to not be okay, knowing that my classmates and professors would understand, and yet still the fear of missing information and lectures loomed as I quickly packed my things and went back to my apartment.

I decided there was nothing I could do just sitting at the hospital, so I stayed.

I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself for that.

I went to my two-hour Contracts class the next day and went to the hospital that afternoon and read for criminal law as I watched my dad sleep. I didn’t realize that night as visiting hours ended and I left the hospital that it would be the last time I saw my father. I kissed him goodbye, but for some reason couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye out loud, so I settled for “I’ll see you, I love you.”

I went to class the next morning and picked up my sister from the airport, and when we got home to drop our things off before going to the hospital, my mom was already home in the kitchen and let us know our father had passed that morning, October 6th at 9:15 in the morning.

I wish I hadn’t chosen school. I wish I had known to stay home and grieve and allow myself that time with my mother and father. If I had to tell anyone the one thing I learned from my experience it’s that school is secondary. Your classmates will supplement your notes, your professors will extend a loving hand and completely understand that you won’t be in class.

I took a week off from school once he passed to arrange the funeral. During the mass, I turned around to exchange the sign of peace – a Catholic thing – and out of the corner of my eye I saw a group of women sitting in the back of the church. After a few seconds, I turned around again only to realize my friends and classmates had come. I had only known these people two months, but there they were, having driven an hour and skipped a class just to show me their support.

I will never be able to thank them enough for that, for so many reasons. It just shows that the bond that law students have with each other can outweigh the struggles of life, that no matter what you are going through your school is there to support you and help you keep going through life after death.

Please don’t be afraid of missing out on school or notes. You can catch up, you can ask for help, and no one will punish you for taking time to grieve. No matter what, never be afraid to ask for help, put your pencils down and allow yourself to just breathe.

Elizabeth Schultz Elizabeth Schultz is a second-year student at Stetson Law participating in their dual-degree program, earning both a JD with Stetson as well as an LL.M in Intellectual Property/Information Technology Law at the University of East Anglia in England.